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A Talented Place...Like Nashville

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‘At the intersection, make a left turn onto - Main Street.’

She hums towards the robotic voice and reaches for the turn-signal.

She’s travelling at a glacial pace; a mixture of curiosity and cluelessness about this strange new place keeping her foot from being firmer on the gas pedal. She knows it’s annoying Shae in the truck behind but decides she doesn’t care enough to change it. Plus, they’re almost there. The Google Maps app on her phone, safely cradled in the corner of the windshield, estimates two minutes…but given their current speed, it’ll be more like five.

As she crawls forwards, her eyes catch a particularly excessive holiday window display inside a store named “McCready’s” (which gives absolutely no indication as to what it sells) and she completely misses the traffic light ahead turning red in the meantime. She’s about to roll straight through it when she slams her foot on the brake and comes to a clumsy stop with her front tyres on the white line. There’s a dissatisfied hiss from the cat basket on the seat beside her but she ignores it, opting to check the rear-view first and make sure that the U-Haul behind her stops in time too.

It does; with a brief high-pitched whine that Nicole can hear over the twangy country song playing on the radio, and she accidentally catches Shae’s eye in the mirror.

God, this is weird.

She hadn’t wanted her help. In fact, she had a whole bunch of other people she knows she could’ve asked to drive the U-Haul for her. But Shae had insisted. Guilty conscience maybe that she got to keep their apartment and everything in it while Nicole was left with nothing even remotely practical for moving to an entirely new place. No couch, no TV, not even an actual bed. The truck contained a brand-new mattress, a few boxes, an old piano that had once belonged to her aunt and uncle and not much else.

It didn’t intimidate her though. She had the things she truly valued with her in her car – her cat, her dog, her collection of guitars (four in all) – plus the car itself. A 1974 Ford Bronco…in orange.

She taps the steering wheel loosely to the beat of the song, looking again towards the store on the corner - an easy excuse to avoid her ex-wife in the mirror - where a guy is struggling to pull the door open. His arms are laden with paper bags as the bell above his head tinkles and Nicole realises it must be a grocery store as the light turns green. Noted, she thinks to herself and moves to pull away again.

 

She doesn’t know why she suddenly feels so nervous. She was fine when she left home.

No. Left Calgary. This is home now, she supposes.

She feels…like an imposter. A town like this is probably one of those places where everybody knows everyone else. Where kids have grown into adults together. Where people are born and where those same people die. She imagines feeling like an outsider in a party that’s tough to crash and she hasn’t even found her house yet.

She turns left, as instructed, glances back to make sure Shae is still following and proceeds to take in the now fully revealed Main Street of Purgatory, Alberta.

There’s a church on the right-hand side and a long row of stores and such on the left. A pharmacy, a book store, McCready’s and then what looks to be a bar on the end.

Shorty’s.’ she reads aloud as she ambles past.

It’s a picture-postcard kind of place. Snow-capped mountains flank it on all sides and fairy-lights are strung between street lights and telephone poles. The sidewalks are teeming with shoppers preparing for Christmas and any cars on the road move cautiously across the slush to avoid spraying their fellow townsfolk.

(No-one is being quite as careful as Nicole however.)

One building, while sand-coloured and ordinary-looking, jumps out at her immediately when her eyes find it. Her new workplace. The Purgatory Sheriff’s Department.

She’s been inside precisely once before; a few weeks ago, for her interview with the town’s Sheriff, but was so nervous that she clearly didn’t pay attention to the surroundings or even the building itself. She stares wide-eyed at it like she’s just seen it for the first time, her nose practically pressed against the glass…until the voice from her phone interrupts again.

‘Turn right onto - Buffalo Street’

‘Woah. This is close.’

She knew her new house had been advertised as being “close to the centre of town” but she didn’t realise that that meant a mere two hundred metres from it. She pats the steering wheel of the Bronco apologetically as if it somehow already knows how little it’ll be needed from now on.

 

It takes her a minute but she eventually finds the one she’s looking for - number thirty-eight - and stops by the kerb just outside. She takes a second to look up at it from the driver’s seat, as if unclipping her belt and opening the door straight away might somehow make this whole thing more real.

It’s a nice house. Hell, it’s a really nice house. It has a small front yard, bordered with a white picket fence; a small porch; three bedrooms and two bathrooms. It’s also supposed to have a good-sized back yard which is “perfect for dogs” according to the online ad. Nicole has never physically been inside, having done all the rental arrangements online in a panic after actually scoring the job with the PSD against all odds. She took the first house she saw within her price range and here she is. It’s more than double the footprint of the one-bedroom apartment she’s leaving behind in downtown Calgary and she’s starting to feel a little anxious about not having enough furniture to fill it.

She finally unclips herself and leans down into the passenger-side footwell to pet the soft snout of her sleeping dog to wake him.

Arlo,’ she sings softly and he lifts his head to look at her. ‘Hey buddy. We’re here.’

At the sound of her door opening, he leaps to his feet and can barely stand with how hard his tail is swishing. He climbs up onto the seat by Calamity Jane’s basket and stands at the window, waiting for Nicole to come around and get him.

‘Which one is it?’ Shae asks, hopping down from the truck and looking curiously between Nicole’s new house and the one next door.

‘The blue one,’ is all she says as she opens the Bronco’s passenger-side just wide enough to slide her arm in. She takes hold of Arlo’s collar to stop him jumping out and running off and tells him ‘Good boy.’ as he settles in her arms.

‘Nice. Expensive.’

Shae somehow phrases it like a statement, a question and a judgement all rolled into one and Nicole glares at her, shuffling Arlo into one arm so the other is free for Calamity’s basket.

‘Do you need help or…?’

‘I got it.’ she says and slams the car door closed with her foot.

She and Shae end up standing together on the sidewalk, looking up at the house in thoughtful silence. Nicole’s sigh comes out as a cloud in the cold mountain air then she pushes decisively through the gate towards the front door. She pops Calamity down onto the porch so that she can fish the set of keys she was given from her coat pocket and Shae, unsure what to do now that will annoy Nicole the least, follows awkwardly. She bends down to try and pick the basket up for her but Nicole beats her to it as the door swings open.

It makes gentle contact with the wall behind and echoes pathetically. The house is completely empty and the wooden floors and lack of curtains mean any sound is free to run wild. Shae lets out a low, impressed whistle as Nicole busies herself with the catch on the basket to release Calamity Jane. She’s miserable about having to move however, and doesn’t come out immediately.

‘That’s OK, girl,’ Nicole tells her. ‘Take your time.’

She slides it over a little so she isn’t right in the middle of the entryway and stands up straight again, now able to cradle Arlo in both arms like a baby.

‘This place is beautiful, Nic.’ Shae says, wandering in a slow circle to take it in.

‘It’s OK, I guess.’

OK?’ she parrots, raising a playful eyebrow that is completely at odds with the vibe she’s being given in return.

‘Mmhmm. Anyway, just let me put Arlo somewhere where he won’t escape and then we can unload the truck. Uh, then you can go.’

She didn’t mean it to sound rude or ungrateful but she’s pretty sure it did anyway. This whole move was supposed to be her escape from Shae and that whole situation. Yet here she is; standing in her hallway, and Nicole can’t help but be desperate for her to leave so she can finally get on with moving on.

She doesn’t apologise even though she knows she probably should and retreats by jogging up the unfamiliar staircase and opening the first door she comes to. It leads to a small-ish room, empty again, which has a view of the back yard so she puts Arlo down on the floor and he gets to work immediately sniffing every square inch of the old threadbare carpet. ‘I’ll be right back,’ she promises quietly. ‘I swear. Five minutes. Ten tops. Just…don’t pee on the floor.’

He’s only a puppy so it’s a fair assumption. A gorgeous Golden Retriever/German Shepherd mix (an educated guess by the vet) that Nicole found by chance during a drugs case with the Calgary Police Service. He’d been left tied to a fence at eight weeks old when their suspects skipped town in a hurry and Nicole fell in love with him from the moment she saw him. While she’d had to jump through a few hoops to do it, she’d eventually been granted permission to adopt him afterwards and a sweeter dog she couldn’t imagine…but dumb as rocks now he was four months old.

She closes the door to the bedroom and descends back down into the hallway to find that Shae has already started bringing boxes in. After a quick check on Calamity, still balled up at the back of her basket, she heads outside to the truck too.

‘Couldn’t you have just put him in the back yard?’ Shae asks, voice echoing in the rear of the near-empty van.

‘Well, I haven’t been able to check it out yet. It might have places he can get through.’

It takes some effort but between the two of them they manage to roll the piano down a ramp from the U-Haul and into the house. Next comes the mattress, which Nicole insists she can handle alone, and Shae takes charge of the giant beanbag that Nicole hasn’t used since college. (She figured it would do for somewhere to sit until she can get an actual couch.)

Then before they know it, they’re back on the sidewalk, awkwardly standing by the truck and unsure what to do or say to each other now that all the work is done.

‘So,’ Shae says with a sad finality that Nicole neither trusts nor shares. ‘Guess this is it.’

‘Guess so. Uh, thanks for helping me out.’

‘No problem. Any time.’

Then there’s another long silence that has Nicole clicking her fingers and aimlessly swinging her arms. God, this is so weird; please just go already.

‘OK,’ Shae eventually announces, taking a couple of steps towards the driver’s door. ‘I uh, should head back.’

But for some reason she turns again, as if she’s committing Nicole to memory, and makes the bizarre decision to approach her with her arms outstretched. Nicole, caught off guard, is enveloped in what might be the most uncomfortable hug ever experienced but, luckily for her, Shae doesn’t draw it out and she’s released as fast as she was seized.

‘I’ll see you around, Nicole.’

She doubts it but nods anyway and waits, out of politeness mainly, for Shae to climb up into the truck and start the engine. The street looks to be a dead-end and Nicole knows she might need to manoeuvre a little to get herself turned around so she doesn’t stay to watch. She just heads inside instead, finally able to close the door on Shae in more ways than one.

She leans her back against the wood and slides down to sit on the floor, intending to wait for the U-Haul’s engine to fade away completely before she goes back out to get her guitars.

But she can hear Arlo crying and scratching upstairs so she goes up to let him out instead now that the front door is shut. He’s been a good boy – no accidents – and he races past her, starting his investigation of this strange new environment in earnest.

 

She has to put her shoulder into it but she eventually manages to slide open the seized glass door that leads to the back yard. The lawn is more dirt than grass at this point with small snow drifts around the edges, but the fence looks secure so she’s confident when Arlo squeezes through her legs and starts looping around her.

She shakes her head and wanders towards the rear to cast a critical eye over the back of the house, scanning for potential issues but there aren’t any. The windows and doors are in relatively good condition; the roof and chimney look OK and there are no obvious problems with the drainage system.

So, she sighs and thoughtfully toes a patch of dirt, even though it’s solid in these temperatures. She knows she’s been lucky with this house, this job, this new town; but she can’t help but feel a little overwhelmed. She’s lived in Calgary her whole life. It’s everything she knows. She doesn’t know anything about Purgatory. What if she hates it here? And even if she does hate it, it’s not like she can just go home again. Not after everything that happened.

It all feels so…permanent.

She leaves Arlo to it outside but keeps the door open a little so he can come back in when he’s cold. It’s childish, she knows, but she crouches down at the window by the front door anyway and makes sure Shae and the U-Haul have definitely gone before she chances going out there again. Five minutes later, there are four guitar cases lined up in the hallway by Calamity’s now empty basket.

Nicole supposes she’s gone to sulk somewhere so she’ll give her some space and check on her in a little while.

Two at a time, she hauls the guitars upstairs and puts them in the small room she’d left Arlo in earlier. They look a little sad being the only things in here but she figures she has all the time in the world to find a more fitting place for them.

Next, she clumsily heaves the still plastic-clad mattress up and flops it down on the floor of the room she assumes is the master bedroom. It has a view of the street outside but if she presses her cheek to the glass and looks down to the left, she can see the very edge of the PSD building and the front of the bar called Shorty’s.

The old upright piano can just stay where it is, she thinks, but she rolls it heavily against the hallway wall and under the stairs so it’s a little neater. After that, it’s just the unceremonious tossing of the beanbag into the living room and unpacking a couple of boxes left to do. The one she labelled with a sharpie pawprint contains all the stuff Arlo and Calamity are going to need – food, bowls, toys and beds – and another is her essentials box with some clothes, bed sheets, just enough kitchenware for the one person and some things for the bathroom.

When she’s done, she’s deflated and has no idea what to do with herself…so she starts slow and takes off her coat.

 

She opens every cupboard and drawer in the kitchen despite knowing that, logically, they’ll all be empty (save for a couple of small spiders). OK, I’m probably going to need food and general supplies before I even think about doing much else, she thinks.

She puts her single knife, fork and spoon into the top drawer before sliding it closed again and, feeling a little more productive now that she has an idea for an actual task to complete, she whistles for Arlo and he stops cold in his tracks, out of breath from running needless circuits between the kitchen, hallway and living room.

‘Walk?’ she asks and he barks once which she takes as an affirmative. ‘Alrighty. Let’s find your leash.’

She finds it in his bed, light blue like his collar, and clicks it on before allowing him to drag her towards the front door with the strength of a dog twice his size.

‘Be back soon, Calamity.’ she shouts up the staircase and listens carefully for a second to see if she can hear movement upstairs…

Nothing.

 

She’s used to getting compliments about Arlo. He’s very cute after all. But the people of Purgatory seem to be particularly taken with him. She’s introduced to three or four different townsfolk before they’ve even left their street and Arlo’s back is already soaked from rolling over on the snowy sidewalk to expose his belly to each and every one.

They’re just rounding the sunny corner beside the PSD building when a couple spot him and the woman trots over for a closer look.

‘Aww, look at this little guy!’ she says, crouching down to smush Arlo’s face and ears. The man she’s with is a little more reserved and follows her in silence without even really acknowledging Arlo or Nicole. ‘I’m sorry. That was weird of me. Hi.’

‘That’s OK. Hello.’ says Nicole politely, watching Arlo once again throw himself onto the ground for tummy tickles.

The woman is a pretty blonde; early thirties maybe, while the guy is probably a similar age; dark-skinned and solidly-built. The typical strong, silent type that the straights seem to love.

‘He’s adorable,’ the woman says finally as she stands up again. ‘I’m desperate for a puppy but he says we have to get the wedding over with first.’

Her companion shifts his weight between his feet when the focus briefly falls on him.

‘Oh. Congratulations.’ Nicole says, squinting against the low winter sun.

‘Aw. You are too sweet. Thank-you. New in town?’

‘Yes, Ma’am. Just arrived,’ and she extends her hand to the woman. ‘Nicole.’

‘Eliza…and this is Xavier.’

She taps the man in the chest with the back of her fingers, one of which is weighted by an enormous diamond ring. He nods but still says nothing and Nicole decides not to bother offering him a handshake. Anyone that Arlo doesn’t immediately approach gives her instant reservations and the dog has kept an unusual distance.

‘And this guy is?’

‘Oh duh,’ she says stupidly, snapping back. ‘Uh, this is Arlo.’

‘Oh my God, that is the sweetest name!’

Nicole smiles as she goes to crouch down to him once more but the man, Xavier, takes hold of her arm to stop her.

‘We should get going,’ he says pointedly. ‘I need to get to rehearsal before tonight.’

‘OK, sure. Well, it was nice to meet you, Nicole. And meeting you was nicest of all, Arlo.’

And she flashes a friendly smile which Nicole happily returns, studying the two carefully as they stroll away.

 

McCready’s is indeed a grocery store which probably means she shouldn’t try to take Arlo inside with her. So, she reluctantly settles for wrapping his leash around a tree at the entrance instead.

She hates tying him up places in case he thinks she’s leaving him and while he’s never displayed any kind of PTSD-like symptoms before, she’s still keen to make sure he always knows she’ll come right back and that she’ll never be leaving him for long.

‘OK, buddy,’ she starts, satisfied with the knot she’s made to keep him secure. ‘I’ll only be a minute, OK? I’ll be right back.’

She gives his ears a ruffle and he puts his front paws on her knees, making little wet prints in the denim but she doesn’t mind. They’re just her moving clothes after all.

With one last tickle she stands up again, and her attention is so focussed on Arlo that she totally forgets how close she is to the doorway and her shoulder collides with something, someone, walking through it. She manages to knock two paper bags to the ground and every single one of the woman’s groceries, most of which being glass bottles, shatter all over sidewalk.

Ugh!

‘Oh my God!’ Nicole yelps. ‘Oh my God I’m so sorry!

‘Yeah. Nice going, Clifford.’

‘Oh God; I’m so sorry. I’m so, so…wait, what?’

The woman is a little shorter than her with dark, glossy hair and piercing blue eyes, currently assessing the swimming mess on the floor around her boots that Nicole is frantically trying to clear up.

‘Oh, just stop. You’re literally like, not even helping.’

‘I’m so sorry. Please let me…here!’ Nicole says, struck by an idea and trying to find her wallet. ‘Let me give you some…oh, I don’t have any cash. Look, come back inside and I’ll-’

‘No. Y’know what. Fuck you, beanpole. I don’t have time for this.’

The woman kicks her foot deliberately through the broken glass as Nicole tries to pick it up, sending a couple of pieces skittering a little further up the sidewalk. ‘Wait-’ she tries.

‘Not only am I late but now, I’m empty-handed too. So, thank you for that.’

Agitated by the snappy tone, Nicole squares her shoulders and drops the couple of shards she’d managed to collect back onto the ground with a tinkle. ‘Hey. It was an accident and I’ve said I’m sorry.’

‘Yeah? Well, your apologies can go fuck themselves too.’

‘Excuse me?!’

And without another word, the woman turns and strides defiantly away, holding her middle finger up and leaving Nicole stunned by how fast that interaction went from zero to whatthefuckwasthat.

‘Here. Let me,’ says a voice behind her and she spins around in case it’s an accomplice. ‘You’d better pick up your dog in case he steps on anything.’

Her whole body slackens and she does as she’s told by this woman who seems to have appeared from nowhere. She’s older with short greying hair, wearing a brown leather apron and carrying a dustpan and brush so it’s probably safe to assume she came from inside the store.

‘I’m so, so sorry. I have no idea what just happened...’

‘Oh, don’t worry about it. Or her,’ the woman says as she takes in Arlo for the first time and steps closer. ‘Hello, little guy. You’re a sweet one, eh?’

He’s so desperate to get closer to this lady that Nicole struggles to hold him and her words come out a little strangled in the effort. ‘His name’s Arlo. I’m Nicole.’

‘Oh. Well, it’s nice to meet you, Nicole. Thought I didn’t recognise you. Name’s Gus,’ and she gestures up the street. ‘Apologies on behalf of my niece.’

‘It was an accident-’

‘Of course it was. Just ignore her. It’s not like she ever pays for any of it anyway.’

As a cop, that doesn’t make Nicole feel a whole lot better and she casts her eye back to the retreating figure, still holding her finger up despite being more than a block away.

So, she’s an asshole.

 

It turns out that Gus isn’t too hot on the health code and allows Arlo into the store under the condition that she can take him to the office with her while Nicole shops. Nicole weighs the deal up in her head and figures it’s as good an arrangement as any. At least she knows he won’t be outside and vulnerable if that woman comes back for revenge.

Once she’s done and her arms are full, she and the dog make their way back towards the house. Thankfully he isn’t pulling anymore which makes it easier to juggle everything she’s bought around his leash as they cross the slippery street.

She hadn’t planned on it but curiosity gets the better of her on the opposite side and she snoops around the front of the PSD a little. Sheriff Nedley had told her to give him a call when she arrived in town but she figures if she’s already here, maybe she should just go in instead?

Before she can talk herself out of it, she pulls the public entrance door open with her little finger and strides in more confidently than she feels, Arlo dutifully following.

‘Can I help you, honey?’ the woman at the front desk asks once she clocks her looking lost.

‘Oh. Hi. Yes. Thanks,’ She clears her throat. ‘I’m, uh, I’m here to see Sheriff Nedley, if he’s around?’

‘Sure. Who’s asking?’

The woman has picked up the phone, obviously ready to dial through to his office but waits expectantly for the additional information before pressing any buttons.

‘Officer Nicole Haught. I’m supposed to be starting here on Monday.’

‘Oh!’ and she puts the phone down again without using it, signalling excitedly for Nicole to come closer. ‘Welcome, Officer Haught! Randy was telling me about you just this morning. Go straight through; he’s in his office.’

She gestures a little way behind herself to an office where the door is already standing open, gold lettering on the frosted glass – SHERIFF. Nicole moves to the end of the bench where the woman lifts the top and unlocks the gate below but she still has to turn sideways to fit through it with her groceries.

‘Oh, look at your little dog!’ the woman suddenly shouts and it takes both Nicole and Arlo by surprise. ‘Can I pet him?’

‘Of course, sure. In fact, could you watch him for a couple of minutes while I speak to the Sheriff?’

‘Absolutely! C’mere, little doggy.’

‘Arlo,’ Nicole says uncertainly as she hands his leash over, and then dumps her bags down onto a nearby couch. ‘Back in a second, buddy.’

 

She knocks even though the door is wide open and waits politely on the threshold. Sheriff Nedley is sat behind his desk with his head in his hands, a steaming mug in front of him as he pores over whatever piece of paper he’s reading.

‘Yeah?’ he asks without moving.

‘Sheriff Nedley? Nicole Haught, Sir.’

‘Oh, Haught!’ he says, leaping to his feet and coming around the desk towards her. ‘You made it.’

‘Yes, Sir. Arrived this morning. I just thought I should come in and…let you know how eager I am to get started.’

‘Yeah, right.’ he scoffs, obviously unconvinced, and waves for her to take a seat.

He’s a thoroughly nice guy. Dad-like in his sense of humour and manner of doing things. Nicole liked him immediately during her interview and knows they’ll get along well once they get to know each other properly. He’s very complimentary about her achievements from the academy and in her few years with the Calgary Police Service, repeatedly insisting how lucky he is that she agreed to take the job in Purgatory in the first place.

They have a good talk about what she can expect, what her schedule will look like, what kinds of tasks she’ll be completing on a daily basis etc and it actually makes her excited to get to work after all. It sounds like a different pace compared with what she’s used to, working as a police officer in a big city, but she isn’t discouraged. She’s looking forward to making her mark and hopefully impressing Sheriff Nedley in the process. Her goal is to make Sheriff herself one day so the harder she works; she figures the more likely it’ll be.

They talk for twenty minutes or so before Nicole decides she should probably relieve the woman at the desk of dog-sitting.

‘Well, it’s been great to catch up again, Nicole.’ Nedley tells her, following her from his office.

‘Yes, Sir. And I’m sorry for taking up so much of your time without notice.’

‘Oh, don’t worry about that. It’s been another slow day. If anything, you’ve saved me from trying to decipher another one of Lonnie’s illegible reports.’

‘This dog is the cutest thing in the whole world.’ the woman tells her seriously, cradling him on her knee and feeding him the leftovers of whatever she’d had on her plate.

‘He yours?’ Nedley enquires, giving Arlo a quick pat on the head.

‘Yes, Sir.’

‘Aw. Handsome boy for sure,’ he coos. ‘I uh, meant to say - a few of the officers and I’ll be at Shorty’s tonight if you’d like to join us? Y’know, for beer. Music etcetera. Consider it a welcome-to-the-town drink with your new colleagues.’

‘Oh,’ she says, taken a little by surprise. ‘That’s really kind of you but I probably shouldn’t. He gets a little antsy on his own and I really don’t want him to chew anything. The house is rented so-’

‘Ah, OK,’ Nedley mutters before suddenly furrowing his brow. ‘Then can I ask what you plan to do with him while you’re working twelve hour shifts here?’

And Nicole has no answer. How had she not considered that? She’d been so hellbent on not leaving him with Shae that she had given the logistics no thought beyond that. Oh, crap.

The panic must be evident on her face because Sheriff Nedley just rolls his eyes and takes a post-it from the top of the stack nearby, scrawling something across it with a pen from his top pocket.

‘Here. Facebook these guys or whatever you people do these days. They’re good; they live over on Second. They’re pet-sitters.’ he adds tetchily at the end when Nicole’s expression doesn’t change.

She reads the note - Ambrose and Levi – and stows it safely in her coat pocket.

‘Thank you, Sir.’ she says timidly.

‘No problem. Well, I suppose we’ll see you Monday if not before.’

 

Later that evening, Nicole is sat in the middle of her enormous purple beanbag, laptop on her knee and a cup of tea in-hand. She’s on Facebook, doing exactly as Sheriff Nedley advised and looking up these mysterious Purgatory pet-sitters. They seem pretty legitimate, with a business page and a cutsie profile photo of two kind-looking guys, each holding a puppy to their chests.

With nothing to lose, she types out a quick message asking them for some more information and attaches a photo of Arlo looking particularly cute for good measure before hitting send.

She then mindlessly clicks around some of the other links that came up when she searched ‘Purgatory, Alberta’, finding one dedicated to the bar on Main Street, and reads the first couple of posts at the top of the feed while she finishes her tea. They’re pretty eloquently written for what looks to be nothing more than a small-town dive bar and she even finds herself chuckling at a few of the more light-hearted ones. They all seem to have hundreds of likes and comments. Popular place.

Maybe she shouldn’t have been so quick to turn down Sheriff Nedley’s drinks offer. What if he thinks she’s rude or a shut-in or something? Probably not the best first impression to give to her new boss...

She glances over to where Arlo is balled up beside her, exhausted by the events of the day, and he certainly seems pretty settled. Maybe he’d be alright for an hour? There’s nothing he can really chew anyway.

Except carpet.

And door frames.

And the kitchen cabinets.

No. He’ll be fine. I’ll be an hour, tops.

Mind made up, she hauls herself out of the crater she’s made in the beanbag and heads towards the staircase. Arlo doesn’t even lift his head. If anything, he just sinks further in.

 

She goes into her bedroom, if you can call it that, and starts looking through boxes to find an appropriate outfit to change into. She at least needs clean jeans and a hair brush…

She settles for a dark green button-down, blue jeans and a pair of sneakers then brushes her long red hair out in the bathroom mirror, fluffing it a little so it isn’t so flat. She applies a little make-up, a little perfume and grabs her brown corduroy jacket, practically skipping down the stairs again. It’s been a while since she went out-out and she’s weirdly looking forward to it despite not knowing anyone yet.

She sticks her head into the living room and finds Arlo hasn’t really moved since she got up but she gives him a tickle anyway and he rolls lazily onto his back at the attention. ‘I won’t be long, OK? And I’ll leave the lights on for you.’

She gets absolutely no acknowledgement whatsoever from him - he’s a dog, after all – and heads out into the night without another word.

 

She hadn’t heard it until she opened the front door but she can already hear the dull thud of live music coming up the street from the bar, interlaced with the sounds of drunken chat and laughter.

The music gets louder and louder the closer she gets and the place is so crowded, it’s overspilling onto the sidewalk outside. She pushes through a particularly rowdy group of guys smoking in the doorway, ignoring them as they call her “baby” and ask for her phone number and marvels once she gets inside at just how many people can fit in such a tiny space. Is this a code violation? she can’t help but think to herself. Probably.

It’s a typical roadhouse bar. Wood-panelled walls and ceilings with cowboy memorabilia on every available surface and a shabby, aged feel. There is indeed a live band playing on a makeshift stage at the back of the room but Nicole pays them no real attention. Her mind is razor-focussed on finding Sheriff Nedley or even the woman from the front desk at the PSD. Just someone she recognises.

The whole place is singing along, almost chanting, to the band who seem to be Purgatory’s answer to local rock stars. Nicole knows the song - Battleship Chains by The Georgia Satellites - and they’re actually doing a really good version of it. She’d probably sing along too if she was a couple of drinks deep and a little less crushed. She can tell it’s a girl singing but can’t really see much between bodies and raised arms as she gradually makes her way towards the bar.

She’s out of breath when she gets there, exhausted from fighting her way through but realises that Sheriff Nedley is actually right in front of her, perched on a bar stool yet still in his police uniform and accompanied by a blonde who’s a lot younger than him. She tries to get his attention by saying his name but he doesn’t hear her over the music so she taps his shoulder instead.

‘Haught!’ she thinks he yells then he leans towards the man sitting on the stool to his other side. He obviously asks him to move up one because there’s now a vacant stool for her and she drops onto it without another thought, mouthing her thanks and taking off her jacket as Sheriff Nedley starts patting her insistently on the knee.

‘This is my daughter, Chrissy.’ he shouts, pointing to the woman next to him and she waves enthusiastically.

Nicole returns it and then throws her hand across him towards her too, all but screaming her name by way of introduction.

‘Nice to meet you!’ Chrissy mouths as she shakes it with a gigantic smile.

Nicole can’t see any bar staff so she waits patiently to order a drink, completely missing the fact that Chrissy and her father have swapped seats and she’s now sat directly beside her.

‘Welcome to Purgatory!’ she says loudly in Nicole’s ear. ‘My Dad won’t shut up about you. It’s nice to finally put a face to the name.’

‘Aw, that’s so sweet! Thank you!’

‘Do you want a drink? Hold on,’ she adds without waiting for an answer and stands on the footrest of the stool, making her a foot or so taller than anyone else nearby. She then waves her arms obnoxiously above her head towards someone Nicole can’t see. ‘OK. She’s coming.’

She can’t help but laugh at the method as Chrissy takes her seat again but her smile disappears, as does all the air in her lungs, when the barmaid finally comes over.

Long brown hair, slightly sun-kissed; a red and blue shirt exposing her mid-riff (printed with the word SHORTY’S) and eyes like crescent moons from the smile she’s got fixed on her.

‘Nicole, this is Waverly,’ Chrissy yells. ‘Waves, this is Nicole. She’s my Dad’s new deputy.’

‘Oh! Hey!’

Stop staring, Nicole instructs herself. It’s something about the smile. It’s like, radiant.

Oh, my god, shut up.

‘Hey. Sorry, hey! Nice to meet you.’ She offers her hand again, this time to Waverly who’s leaning across the bar to hear her better, but she weirdly gives it more of a squeeze than a shake.

‘You too. Can I get you a drink?’

‘Yeah. Um, could I get a beer please?’

‘Sure. Any preference?’

‘Uhh…’

There’s a calmness about this girl. Waverly. Even though the place is packed and she’s probably rushed off her feet, she doesn’t speak like she’s in a hurry. She’s totally in control.

Experienced.

‘Whatever you’d recommend.’ Nicole tells her and she hits her with that smile again before disappearing to get it.

She can’t help but watch her go. Wearing high-top sneakers and tight (so very tight) denim shorts, it must be kind of an occupational hazard to be objectified when you’re a barmaid. But Waverly is exceptionally attractive and it’s been a long time since Nicole let herself think that about anyone. While she feels guilty and gross for staring so openly, she’s also kind of proud of herself; like she finally just hit closure on her humiliating attempt at marriage.

‘So, Nicole,’ Chrissy starts at her side, fidgeting with a chewed straw. ‘What do you think of Purgatory so far?’

‘Well, I’ve only been here a few hours so I haven’t really formed an opinion yet. Although I have already been cursed at so-’

‘What? By who?’

At that exact moment, there’s a small gap in the crowd and the band are fully visible to Nicole for the first time since she came in. ‘Her.’ she says simply, gesturing to the woman behind the mic with a bass guitar slung around her shoulders.

It’s definitely her. Front and centre on the stage, with fairy lights wrapped around her mic stand. To her left, the lead guitarist’s hat is shadowing most of his face but she can see he has a spectacular moustache going on under there and behind them, to Nicole’s surprise, is the douchecanoe from earlier – Xavier – on the drums.

Chrissy follows her eyeline. ‘Who? Wynonna?’

‘If you say so,’ she shrugs. ‘We didn’t really get to introducing ourselves.’

‘Uh-oh. What happened?’

So, Nicole recounts her disastrous meeting with the woman named Wynonna at a yell so that Chrissy can hear her properly. She gasps and grimaces in all the right places and generally makes a pretty good audience for the story.

‘She was a total asshole. Like, to a degree I didn’t even know existed,’ Nicole says to finish just as Waverly returns with a large glass of beer for her. ‘Oh, thank you.’

‘Who is?’ she asks curiously, clearly wanting to be involved in the conversation but Nicole just juts her head at the band, lips already around the rim of her glass. She completely misses Chrissy’s uncertain glance but she can definitely tell that the atmosphere has changed in the time it’s taken her to have one sip.

She looks between the two and while Chrissy seems like she just wants to laugh, Waverly has an unreadable expression on her face that has Nicole slowly lowering her glass. ‘What?’

Then the band finish their current song and there’s a brief quiet while they gear up for the next one. As the guitar suddenly kicks in again, the word ‘Waves!’ is yelled through the mic and Wynonna gestures wildly towards the bar. ‘Let’s go!’

For some reason, the room seems to go even more bananas and Waverly slowly backs away from Nicole and Chrissy, still with that weird look on her face that Nicole can’t decipher. Then she’s untying her apron from around her waist, dropping it onto the bar by an older guy, who she pats on the shoulder, and disappearing into the crowd.

She cuts through easily as they part for her and is helped up onto the stage by a guy at the front of the throng. She gets there just in time for the opening lyric and pretty much tears the roof off the place from the very first word.

‘I’m like a locomotive. I don’t run out of steam. I’m headed towards the reservoir and I’m gonna need a drink...’

Nicole’s eyeballs just about fall out of her head. She knows her mouth is hanging open too but she can’t seem to get her brain to close it.

‘I ain’t no Napa Valley. New York City seems OK. I’m a little bit more Tennessee and there’s whiskey in my veins.’

The whole place is on its feet, bouncing up and down so heavily that the floorboards under Nicole’s stool are pulsing. She knows this song too and Waverly’s voice is perfectly suited to it, if a little clean cut. It’s rocked-up country at its finest and exactly the kind of music that should be performed in a bar like this.

‘…I been down on my luck, but I ain’t givin’ up. Well, I totalled his truck but he loves me just the same…’

The whole crowd is electrified but there’s a group of guys at the front getting particularly loud. Nicole glances over just as one of them wolf-whistles at Waverly but she seems too into her song to care…or she just flat-out ignores him; Nicole isn’t sure.

Weirdly, Eliza is stood amongst the group too, looking distinctly out of place as the only woman and swaying side to side with a glass of wine in her hand.

‘Yeah, so-’ Chrissy starts, shuffling close enough to Nicole’s ear that she doesn’t have to yell. ‘Wynonna is Waverly’s sister.’

Nicole closes her eyes as Chrissy’s words hit her like a punch to the jaw. Chrissy, clearly amused by this whole situation, just pats her sympathetically on the leg before turning back to enjoy the rest of her friend’s performance.

When she does eventually open her eyes, she looks again at Waverly who definitely doesn’t have an unreadable expression now. She’s happy. She’s enjoying herself. She’s commanding the whole damn room with an undeniable sexiness that comes with confidence. She’s good at this and she knows it.

And if the way she playfully interacts with Wynonna on stage is anything to go by, they’re not just sisters. They’re close sisters…

…and Nicole is mortified.

 

The song, which seemed to go on forever while Nicole frantically debated whether or not to just leave, finally comes to an end with an upsurge from the crowd that she can physically feel as well as hear. Wynonna just encourages them all to cheer even louder as Waverly bows shyly a couple of times then hops down onto the floor again.

She tries to get back to the bar; back to work, but is stopped by pretty much everyone on the way to compliment her on her performance. It’s praise that clearly embarrasses and galvanises her in equal measure and the wolf-whistler, a greasy-haired fuckboy who’s covered in tattoos, also pushes close to get a word with her. She rejects him by pulling her arm from his tight, slimy grip but the sight of him touching her at all makes the hairs on Nicole’s neck rise and her cop-senses tingle.

‘Thank you again for being so kind as to give Waverly the night off, Shorty.’ comes moustache-man’s voice through the mic and the older guy behind the bar, Shorty presumably, shrugs innocently.

The crowd chuckles politely at the exchange as the band burst into their next song which, judging by the response, is a favourite amongst the locals. Moustache-man soaks in the noise they’re making and swaggers around in the spotlight.

‘I’m a puzzle. I’m a walkin’ contradiction in far from mint condition coz there’s pieces I can’t find…’

Waverly, having finally escaped her fan club, is beaming when she gets back and it stays perfectly in place as she puts her apron on like she hasn’t just done the single most amazing thing Nicole has ever seen. But when she notices Nicole watching her, her expression sours and her eyes narrow as they dare her to say something.

‘Can I get you anything else?’ she asks curtly and cocks a hip. Nicole stays silent.

‘Uh, could I get another red wine please, Waves?’

Her eyes flick to Chrissy for the briefest of seconds - Nicole having forgotten she was even there - before coming back. ‘Yeah. Sure thing.’

And then she’s gone.

***

Arlo has been alone for approximately three and a half hours and while Nicole tries not to let the thought consume her (because she knows she can’t leave until she’s spoken to Waverly and apologised), she is getting pretty concerned about what kind of mess she’s going to walk into when she does finally get home.

She’s still sat at the bar, twirling an empty glass around in her hand and watching the last drops circle the bottom. The lights are on and the place is basically empty with only the band, Waverly, Nicole and Eliza – who has somehow ended up at the bar as well – remaining. Nicole assumes she’s waiting for Xavier to finish packing away his equipment so they can head home together.

Waverly is at the other side of the room, wiping down tables and putting chairs up on top. She hasn’t come back to the bar or into Nicole’s general vicinity for at least an hour, seemingly doing any task she can find that keeps her firmly elsewhere. But still Nicole waits, determined to make things right. She doesn’t want Waverly to think badly of her for one ill-informed comment, especially when they’ve only just met…

‘Well, ladies,’ moustache-man says, clicking his guitar case closed and adjusting the hat on his head a little, totally ignoring the fact that Xavier is present too. ‘I will bid you all a good night.’

‘Night, Doc.’ Wynonna tells him with a small smile but he appears not to hear her, making a beeline for Waverly instead.

He puts his arm around her shoulders and presses a sweet kiss to her temple before telling her ‘Pitch perfect tonight, as usual. Goodnight, Waverly.’

She beams at the comment and leans a little further into his embrace in response. ‘Aww thanks, Doc. Night.’

Nicole watches them in the mirrored surface behind the bar. It doesn’t seem like a romantic exchange. More familial. If anything, it’s cute. She’d love to be able to tell Waverly how amazing she was tonight if just to get that smile in response. The man, “Doc” evidently, tips his hat on his way out and Eliza waves but Nicole just turns her attention back to her empty glass.

‘Alright,’ Eliza starts, swinging herself around the long way. ‘Seeing as your dog isn’t here. Tell me about yourself, newbie.’

Nicole snorts.

‘Come on. Waiting in silence is boring. I promise I’ll start easy.’

She shimmies her shoulders like it’s an offer Nicole couldn’t possibly refuse and she may have had a few drinks tonight because she’s a lot more forthright than she was this afternoon.

‘How about…why the fuck have you chosen to move to Purgatory of all places?’

The question makes Nicole smirk but she supposes she has to provide some kind of answer.

‘Uh. Well, it was sort of by accident. Work.’ Nicole clarifies on a laugh. ‘I’m here for work. I’m a police officer.’

‘Oh. Wait, for the PSD?’ Eliza asks, genuinely interested…and almost offensively surprised.

‘Mmhmm. Well, from Monday...’

‘Wow. That’s actually pretty cool,’ She flaps her arm towards the stage. ‘X is a cop with the PSD too.’

Nicole isn’t sure why but that catches her attention. ‘Really?’ she asks, watching Xavier whisper into Wynonna’s ear while wrapping a cable into a loop. Wynonna then laughs which confuses her even more. She can’t really imagine this guy cracking a joke. ‘Interesting.’

They talk a little about Eliza too (an interior designer from Vancouver who practices about six different types of martial arts because they “relax” her. Nicole thinks she’s a stone-cold psycho but laughs along with her tipsy anecdotes anyway.) It’s a few minutes later when Xavier eventually approaches them, looking down at his phone with a frown.

Finally. Ready to go?’ Eliza asks him, wrapping her hands around his chunky arm to help herself stand up.

‘Actually no. I’ve uh, been called in,’ he says, holding his phone up like it proves something. ‘Something big’s happened.’

‘Ugh, again?’

‘Sorry,’ he says, not sounding very sorry at all as far as Nicole is concerned. ‘I should be home in the morning. You gonna be OK getting back?’

‘Guess I’ll have to be,’ Eliza says but softens almost immediately. ‘Go save the day; it’s fine. Ooh, speaking of which-’

Nicole turns slightly in her seat, knowing she’s about to be referred to.

‘Did you know she’s a cop too?’

‘Uh, no. I didn’t,’ is all he says before excusing himself with a distracted ‘Anyway, I should get going.’

He pecks Eliza on the cheek and she pats his broad chest with an encouraging ‘Go get ’em.’

He’s an asshole. Nicole can’t figure out why she thinks that but she gets a definite and strong asshole vibe, she’s decided. Ditching his fiancée when she’s waited over an hour for him – such an asshole move, even if it is for work. She doesn’t say it out loud though. She’s learning her lesson in that regard and just gives Eliza a tight smile that she hopes passes for sympathetic.

‘This’ll be you by next week,’ Eliza tells her, draining what’s left in her glass. ‘He’s always getting called in, staying late, working weekends. Comes with the job I guess.’

‘Hmm. Yeah.’

Nicole doesn’t know what to say beyond that. She watches Eliza swing her coat around her shoulders and stand up to leave for the second time.

‘Anyway, no point in hanging around now I guess. Later, newbie.’

‘See ya. You sure you’re OK getting home?’

‘Honey, we live two blocks away,’ she says as if she hasn’t just explained to Nicole that crime in Purgatory is allegedly rampant. ‘I’ll be peachy.’

She’s genuinely considering just getting up and walking Eliza home anyway when suddenly Waverly is gloriously, finally standing right in front of her. It makes pretty much every other thought disappear in a puff of smoke.

‘Are you moving in or something?’

‘Uh,’ Nicole nervously re-adjusts herself on her stool and realises that Wynonna also appears to have gone, leaving just her and Waverly alone in the bar. ‘No?’

Waverly tilts her head to the side, unimpressed by the answer and clearly waiting for another.

‘I wanted to see you…I mean, talk to you…before I went home.’

‘Why?’

‘B-Because you’re mad at me.’

‘I’m not mad at you. I don’t even know you.’

‘No. You’re right, you don’t. But also…you are mad at me.’

Waverly, almost in spite of herself, tosses the rag she’s holding onto the surface of the bar and folds her arms across her chest. An irritable gesture Nicole assumes means proceed.

‘I won’t make excuses. I shouldn’t have called your sister an asshole. I mean, I didn’t know she was your sister obviously but…I also don’t know her and, to be fair to her, I had just broken around a hundred dollars-worth of liquor all over the floor. But apparently, she hadn’t even paid for it so,’

‘Nicole.’ Waverly warns.

‘Right. Basically, I’m really sorry. I’m new here and I don’t know what I’m doing or who anyone is and I’m…overwhelmed. I let her get to me and I shouldn’t have. Even though she did tell me to go fuck myself at least twice.’

Waverly snorts, momentarily forgetting she’s supposed to be angry.

‘But I’d like it to be known that I’m not a horrible person. I don’t go around calling people assholes and bitching about them to strangers in bars. I’ve had a crappy couple of months and to be honest, I’m not really myself right now. I know you have no reason to believe me but I’m nice. I swear, I’m nice and I really, really don’t want you to hate me. Hell, I don’t even want your sister to hate me. So, please, can we just start over?’

Waverly waits a second, absorbing Nicole’s little speech and the word “hate” seems to get to her. She gives Nicole a once over and her shoulders suddenly relax.

‘OK, fine.’

‘OK, fine?’ Nicole asks, unsure.

‘Apology accepted.’

‘Wh-really?’

‘Yeah. I love her to death but to be honest, Wynonna can be kind of an asshole so yeah. Apology accepted.’

Nicole is floored by how gracious she’s being and she heaves a literal sigh of relief that makes Waverly smile and then giggle.

‘People always build apologies up to be way harder than they actually are.’ she says with a shake of her head, taking the rag into her hands again.

‘Well, then thank you for being kind enough to accept mine.’ Nicole replies, finally getting to her feet. ‘I should get going. Let you finish up.’

Waverly watches her carefully as she slides her jacket on and flicks her hair out of the collar. She’s biting her bottom lip like she wants to say something…but she doesn’t.

‘Are you gonna be OK here, by yourself?’ Nicole asks, casting her eyes around the empty room.

‘It is not my first rodeo.’

‘Of course it’s not. Sorry. That was probably a little-,’ Nicole has no idea what that was so she just follows herself up with another ‘sorry.’

‘That’s OK. It’s sweet of you to ask. Probably a cop thing, right?’

‘Yeah…maybe.’

She tucks her stool under the bar as Waverly says ‘I’ll only be ten more minutes anyway. It’s just the bar, the lights and the shutters left to do.’ and Nicole thinks of Arlo at home again.

The words ‘Do you want any help?’ fall from her mouth anyway.

‘Oh! No, that’s OK.’

‘Sure? We can probably make that ten minutes into five if we split what’s left?’

‘Well, I mean, if you want to-?’

 

When Nicole checks her watch, it’s almost 1am.

She’s standing outside the bar, keeping Waverly company as she closes metal shutters down over the front windows. It’s cold tonight and she bounces a little on the balls of her feet in a fruitless effort to stay warm. Or maybe it’s impatience…because she really is starting to worry about Arlo.

‘Have you worked here long?’ she asks as the last shutter clunks into place.

‘Oh. Like, since I was sixteen.’

‘Is that legal?’

‘Sorry. Forgot I was talking to an Officer of the Law.’ Waverly says with a smirk. ‘Shorty’s a family friend. He helped me out when I needed a little extra for college.’

‘That’s nice.’ says Nicole as Waverly turns to her.

‘Yeah.’

There’s a long gap and Waverly is clearly struggling with what to say next so she plumps for ‘Anyway. Thanks for helping me.’

‘That’s alright. My pleasure. Guess I’ll see you around?’

‘Probably.’

Waverly smiles and her eyes crinkle up again. It makes Nicole sigh.

Then they both move to walk away only to find that they’re heading in the same direction. Waverly laughs.

‘You’re this way too, huh?’

‘Buffalo, yeah.’

‘Buffalo,’ she says quietly, more to herself than to Nicole. ‘Of course.’

 

The short walk is mainly silent but slow, despite the temperature and the time of night. Nicole wants to ask Waverly more about herself but is worried there isn’t enough time right now to really get into it so she settles for a succinct ‘You were incredible tonight.’ instead.

‘You think so?’

‘The band too. Really good.’

‘Thanks. We try.’

‘What are you guys called?’ Nicole asks, eager to keep the conversation going a little longer now that it’s started.

‘Well, officially we’re The Peacemakers but hardly anyone calls us that. We’re just “Waverly’s band” or “Wynonna’s band” or “Dolls’ band”…’

‘Dolls?’

‘Our drummer,’ she explains. ‘It’s his last name.’

Nicole moves to walk over a patch of grass, avoiding a frozen puddle and comes back slightly closer to Waverly than she was before. ‘What’s your last name?’

‘Why? You gonna stalk me on Facebook?’

‘No. I’m gonna run a background check on that sister of yours when I get clearance at the PSD.’

Waverly laughs again and Nicole finds herself serenely joining in.

‘Earp.’

‘Earp.’ Nicole parrots back thoughtfully. Waverly Earp. She likes that.

‘And you?’

‘Uh. OK, but don’t laugh.’

‘Why would I-?’

‘I’m…Nicole Haught.’

Waverly’s slow pace falters and her shoulder grazes Nicole’s.

‘As in…?’

‘No,’ she replies quickly, holding up a stern finger. ‘H-A-U-G-H-T.’

‘Hm. Got it. And there was me about to make a joke…’

Nicole would probably pay her a million dollars right now to say out loud what she’s thinking. For some kind of confirmation that maybe, just maybe, she might find Nicole attractive too. But she doesn’t. She’s just smiling down at her own feet.

‘You said you wouldn’t laugh.’

‘No, I didn’t.’

Nicole realises then that they’ve reached the gate outside her new house and she slows to a stop, momentarily confusing Waverly. ‘Uh, this is me.’

‘…Mattie’s old house?’

‘Who’s Mattie?’

‘Just one of the townsfolk. Died of breast cancer a couple of years ago. Place has been empty ever since.’

Nicole casts an unsure glance over her house again and Waverly watches her with a grin.

‘Don’t worry. She didn’t die in the house.’

‘Hmm. So, uh, where’s home for you?’ she asks when Waverly eventually stops giggling.

‘We live on the outskirts of town but there’s a shortcut through the hedge up here. Otherwise, I’d have to walk all the way around.’

She points to a dark corner at the top of the street, beyond which is a large open prairie and a dirt track. It makes Nicole nervous, the idea of her walking the rest of the way alone.

‘You sure you’re-’

‘I’ll be fine, Officer Haught.’ Waverly says with an eyeroll.

They’ve just about exhausted conversation for tonight, Nicole can tell. She should let her go…but still they stand there, shyly watching each other and chuckling when they’re caught.

‘I should head home…’

‘Yeah, I should go inside too. Uh, how long does it take you? From here I mean.’

‘Like, five minutes. Not long at all.’

‘OK. OK, good.’

Waverly smirks at Nicole’s obvious concern and turns around with another roll of her eyes. ‘Goodnight, Nicole.’

‘Night, Waverly.’

And despite how late it is, despite how cold and despite knowing Arlo may have wrecked the entire house behind her, Nicole still stands and watches as Waverly walks away. She watches her until her coat has disappeared through the hedge and is a little disappointed that she didn’t look back. Not even once.

Waverly, on the other hand, was desperate to turn around. But she didn’t. She won’t give Nicole that satisfaction. Not just yet. Especially when she knew she was watching her...

 

Nicole enters the house with her hand over her eyes and slowly parts her fingers to soften the blow of whatever she’s convinced she’ll find. But she needn’t have bothered. It looks exactly how she left it. The lights are still on in the hallway and the living room but there are no signs of any kind of damage. Not even a pee-puddle. Nothing.

She looks around for Arlo and finds him, his tiny blond body, balled up on the beanbag and all snuggled up…

…with Calamity Jane.