It is hot.
Not warm. Not a little stuffy. Not a bit uncomfortable.
The waves of heat rolling off the hood of the truck, sticky asphalt shimmering in the distance, blazing sun kind of hot.
Nicole loves it.
Most people would favor the air conditioner in this kind of scorcher, but it’s a dry heat, and Nicole finds the artificial air stuffy, so even though the swirling sand is billowing around the sides of her dark blue pickup, she leaves the windows down. The bill of her favorite old UBC Thunderbirds cap is shielding her eyes against the harsh glare of the midday sun, also keeping her hair out of her face, but the coppery locks that spill out from beneath it are whipping around her neck and shoulders in the wind that is sweeping through the open cab of the truck.
Nicole lives for this. She’s rumbling down the empty highway in her faithful old Chevy, eyes dancing as she takes it all in. The rolling plains dotted with breathtaking mesas. The freshness of the air, clouded only with dust and sand rather than exhaust and refuse. An open road stretched out as far as she can see. It reminds her of summers on her grandparents’ ranch, and it feels like freedom.
The rock station Nicole has been listening to for the majority of her drive fizzles out, finally giving way to the static that has been threatening around the edges for the last half an hour. She abandons the drum solo she’s been beating out against the steering wheel, letting her arm sling over the edge of the window, hand dangling lazily against the outside of the door.
Up ahead, a sign is coming into view, and she sits up a little straighter in the driver’s seat, feeling a hint of excitement creeping into her veins.
Now Entering Wyatt Earp Country
Nicole can’t help the smile that tugs at the corners of her mouth as she reads the lonely billboard standing like a long forgotten sentry alongside the dusty highway.
Grandaddy would get a kick out of that. Always was a sucker for the heroes of the Old West.
The sign isn’t fancy, but it is resolute. There are no elaborate pictures or decorations. Only simple, old-western style letters, faded from years of standing guard under the unforgiving sun.
Just like Grandaddy.
As she draws nearer, the truck still barreling down the deserted road, Nicole can see that the wooden frame is splintered, the paint blistered and peeling under the effects of the constant exposure to the elements. Hope the condition of the sign doesn’t say anything about the condition of the area, she catches herself thinking, but the idea is fleeting, gathered up and swept away with the wind rushing past her ears as she fiddles with the radio again.
After nearly giving up on it for good, Nicole actually chuckles out loud when she finally lands on a strong, clear signal and the sound of Tim McGraw accompanied by several guitars pours out of the speakers around her. “Figures it would be country all the way out here,” she says aloud to no one, but the broad smile on her face remains in place as she cranks up the volume and catches hold of a memory wrapped up in the music.
“Turn it up, Grandaddy! Turn it up!” a five-year-old Nicole squealed while clapping excitedly. She was in her cotton dress – the one she hated just the tiniest bit less than her others – wedged between her grandparents on the bench seat of his ancient pickup truck on the way back home from church. He grinned down at her, the tanned, leathery skin crinkling at the corners of his gleaming eyes, and reached out to turn the dial. She cheered with delight, wiggling happily in her seat.
“Aren’tcha gonna sing it to Grandmama?” Nicole asked, poking her grandfather’s muscular arm and blinking up at him.
“Yeah… Aren’tcha?” her grandmother played along, grinning at him from the passenger seat.
A low, rumbling laugh made his broad shoulders shake, and he held his free hand up in surrender. “Well, it looks like I ain’t got no choice now, do I, Li’l Darlin’?” he said with a wink, then crooned along with the upbeat country song, drawling out his words in just the right places.
“Don’t know what it is ‘bout that little gal’s lovin’, but I like it. I love it. I want some more of it.”
The little girl leaned her head back against her grandmother’s shoulder to watch his antics, and together they wiggled along with the music, both of them giggling when her grandfather pulled a funny face during his serenade. Nicole thought that maybe someday she would make someone smile at her like that when she sang them a silly love song.
She’d been singing along loudly with the blast from her past, but when the song ends, fading rapidly into some newer country pop tune, Nicole wrinkles her nose and turns the radio back down, her thoughts still lingering on her grandparents. Her chest grows uncomfortably heavy as a weight settles in and presses against her heart.
She’d lost Grandaddy several years ago. Just before she had graduated high school. Before she had gone to college. Before she had led her team to another women’s basketball championship. Before she had graduated from UBC and then enrolled in the Academy. He had missed so many things. And while her family – parents, sister, grandmother – had been there for all of them, Nicole had always found it difficult to swallow around the tightness in her throat when she looked up and realized he wasn’t there to wink at her, and sling his heavy arm around her shoulders, and give her a scratchy kiss on the cheek while he told her “I’m proud of ya, Li’l Darlin’.”
Nicole doesn’t seem to realize that her hand is still hovering in the air as though suspended there by a puppet’s string after she’s released the knob of the radio, her thumb having started to stroke absentmindedly over the turquoise band trimmed with gold that she wears on her finger. She’s only had the ring for a handful of months now, and she still isn’t used to wearing it. She often catches herself fiddling with it when she’s lost in thought.
But Nicole would give anything in the world not to have the ring. Not to be getting used to it. Not to be spinning it around her slender finger with her thumb while she gazes at the road and operates her truck on auto-pilot.
Because if Nicole did not have the ring, then it would still be on her grandmother’s finger.
She had been a little over halfway through her training at the Police Academy when she had gotten the call from her mother. It had come out of nowhere and left her reeling.
“Hey, Haughtstuff! You coming out with us tonight?” one of Nicole’s classmates called into her cramped dorm room as she was wringing out her hair after a quick shower.
“Yeah, just need a few minutes,” she answered, waving her hand at the mess of wet hair still gathered in her towel when Matt and Jennifer poked their heads around the open doorframe. “Go ahead. I’ll meet you there.”
“First round is on you,” Matt declared, jabbing a finger decisively in her direction. “It’s the least you can do after kicking our asses on the range today.” His tone was grumpy, but his expression was playful. Jennifer elbowed him lightly in the ribs and he “oomfed” dramatically, earning him a subsequent slap on the shoulder.
“Deal,” Nicole answered with a smug grin, moving to plug in the hair-dryer and waving when Jennifer said they would see her soon before the pair disappeared around the corner again. Between the noise and her distraction, she didn’t notice her phone vibrating on the desk the first time, and she nearly missed it the second as she was hastily shoving it in the pocket of her jacket on her way out the door.
“Hey, Mom,” she answered quickly as she turned back to search for her keys, almost as an afterthought. “I was just headi—“
But then her world was shattering around her like the time she had accidentally knocked one of her mother’s vases off the table by the door when she was dribbling her basketball in the front hall because it was raining outside. Nicole knew her mother was still talking, but none of the words were finding their way through the pounding in her ears as she stood there trying to remember how to breathe. She reached a shaky hand forward and braced herself against the wall, her keys having slipped from her grasp, long forgotten.
Nicole’s fellow cadets found her a few hours later, curled up in a ball on the floor next to her bed, face swollen and caked with tears, the door to her dorm room still standing ajar. She managed to get the next week off, her instructors granting her leave to go to Wyoming for the funeral, and for a few desperate days, Nicole considered not even going back to the Academy.
But then she thought about what her grandmother always told her when she fell off of her horse, or missed the cans on the fence post with her rifle, or cried when the boys told her stupid girls couldn’t play basketball. “Never give up, Hawk. That’s just the place and time that the tide will turn.”
Nicole hadn’t really understood the gravity behind them when she was little, but as she grew older, the words had stuck with her, always in the back of her mind when she felt like she was in a tight place and everything was against her. If she let the tide pull her under now instead of waiting for it to turn, what would Grandmama have to say about that?
Nicole manages to pull herself out of her reflections. That’s quite enough of that. She blows out a couple of deep breaths and shakes her head, determined not to lose the good mood she’s been enjoying since she started this trip with the sunshine, and the fresh air, and the open road. Her mind settles instead on the memory of the nickname her grandmother had given her when she was a hurricane of a little girl, running around all skinned knees, and bruised elbows, and bravery, and determination.
Nicole can’t even think about it without smiling. It always seemed so random to anyone who ever heard Grandmama use it, but really, it wasn’t. The orange hawkweed – Pilosella aurantiaca, to be exact – was a wild prairie flower that grew all around the land of the ranch. Sometimes you could stand in the middle of a field and see nothing but waves of fiery orange and red until they bled into the horizon.
When she was little, Nicole had thought the color of her hair was the only reason her grandmother had given her the name. Then one time, Bobby Evans and his friends had teased her, saying it meant she was just a weed. When the ensuing scuffle had ended with the other boys hurling curses at her while they helped Bobby scurry home with a busted nose and a black eye, she realized it might have also had something to do with how stubborn the hawkweed could be. She had seen Grandaddy mow down an entire field of it once, and before the end of the summer, it had already started to grow back.
The sound of the DJ’s voice chattering on in the background, just a muffled droning while Nicole was lost in thought, finally gives way to music once more and she grins happily when it isn’t a faux-country song again, but instead, another from the time when she was growing up. She hasn’t really listened to cowboy music in years – something she imagines might change in the near future, given her current destination – but when the voice of Garth Brooks fills the cab of the truck, she remembers why she had enjoyed country “back when it was still good.” Her mother’s words, not hers.
Nicole’s hand has fallen idly on the center console beside her, no longer fidgeting with her ring, and she uses it to crank the volume on the radio back up to slightly higher than acceptable levels. She flops her other arm back out the window again, letting it rise and fall as she twists her hand in the wind currents while she sings along to “Friends in Low Places,” making funny faces during the silly parts of the song and dropping her chin to her chest to hit the low notes during the chorus.
She carries on that way for several more kilometers, singing along with the older songs that she knows, and tapping out rhythms on the steering wheel and the ledge of the window for the ones that she doesn’t. Eventually she sees another sign drawing into view up ahead on the right.
As she gets a bit closer, Nicole does an actual double take. What the…? It looks like something out of a bad 50’s sitcom. Cartoonish “All-American Family” types – gotta love some irony… do they not know we are in the middle-of-nowhere Canada, for fuck’s sake? – smile and wave at her from an absurd retro convertible. Smile? Kinda looks a little more like they might be screaming. She squints against the glare from the sun in order to make out the words.
Welcome to Purgatory! (only 7 away) You’ll Never Want to Leave!
Quirking her eyebrow, Nicole actually snorts as she passes the comical sight. What exactly are you getting yourself into, Hawk? But then she thinks about why she is there, and she thinks about the words at the bottom of the sign, and a part of her hopes that maybe they will prove true.
Might turn out to be just what you’re looking for.
She had felt so alive when she had graduated college. Like she was standing on the precipice of something amazing. Her team had won another title. She had graduated with honors. She had a life with her beautiful girlfriend. Her family had been so proud of her. And she had known without a doubt what her next step would be. It had taken a few months after graduation to complete all of the processes, but when Nicole had announced that she’d been accepted into the Police Academy, her whole family had been prouder still.
Her girlfriend had not.
The fight had been quick. Explosive. Full of harsh words and bitter truths and finality. Much like the time she had punched Bobby Evans in the nose. Only this time, it was her ex that had stormed out of their apartment, and Nicole was the one left standing with the wind knocked out of her.
Apparently, even though she had majored in Criminal Justice and minored in Psychology, it was still some sort of surprise that she had applied to begin her career in law enforcement. Apparently, that only made her a walking stereotype, especially when added to the basketball. Apparently, spending six months in Chilliwack at the Academy was unacceptable – although, apparently taking an indefinite internship at some computer tech company in Chicago somehow managed not to fall under the category of unacceptability. Apparently.
The suddenness of it all had knocked Nicole off of her game at the time – a little more than she would care to admit now – the unexpected wound fresh and raw. But the urge to abandon her friends, and listen to Adele on repeat for hours on end, and sleep on the couch instead of in their bed had faded quickly, and it hadn’t taken long for her to regain her footing.
With the encouragement of her family – sometimes having a sister ten years your senior is a good thing… “She’s not good enough for you, Nic. You’re worth so much more than that. You’ll see.” – she turned her focus ahead to starting at the Academy, regardless of the hurtful words that echoed in the corners of her mind. But then the wound had healed while she wasn’t looking, and soon all that was left was painless scar.
It’s been over a year since Amy left her. She isn’t heartbroken. She isn’t pining. She isn’t lamenting what could have been, or running away to hide from the world. With all that Nicole has accomplished since, she simply looks back on the whole thing as a learning experience.
She isn’t one to change herself for someone else. She never has been. Not when she was a little girl protecting her best friend by shooting the boys with her cap gun instead of playing with Barbies. Not when she was studying and playing video games instead of sneaking out the window to get drunk with her friends. Not when she was kissing the ranch foreman’s daughter in the stables instead of chasing after the cowboys. Not when she was playing basketball and studying the law instead of focusing on business and interning at her father’s firm. And when her girlfriend had given ultimatums alongside the threat of walking out, Nicole had decided she certainly wasn’t going to start then. Not for Amy, not for anyone.
When Nicole had graduated from the Academy with top scores in marksmanship and the top 5% of her class overall, she was told she would basically have her pick of open rookies slots. Her parents assumed she would return home to Calgary and become a constable with the municipal force. She had considered it herself – being close to her parents and her sister’s family wouldn’t be terrible – but something about the prospect of it just didn’t feel… right.
Nicole had never felt more at home than she did spending time at the ranch in Wyoming. She’d been devastated when they had moved to Calgary in the first place for her father’s work when she was six, and she had insisted on returning to spend her summers there every year since – even in college, she managed to make it back between the end of the semester and the beginning of her off-season workouts. Her Academy instructors thought she had lost her mind when she told them she wanted to find a small-town posting in a rural area, but Nicole knew it was what her heart truly longed for.
It took a few months to find an open post – small towns don’t often have a high turnover rate – and when the Academy placement officer had brought Nicole an application to some place called Purgatory, she’d actually thought he was pranking her at first. But here she is, all of her possessions loaded in the back of her pickup – and let’s face it, there aren’t many. Between campus life, and then the Academy so soon after, she’s never really accumulated much beyond that of a typical college student.
It won’t be long now.
Nicole is leaning forward in her seat, gripping the steering wheel tightly with both hands. She’s driving through the countryside, past a ridiculous sign, toward a town with a ridiculous name, but the windows are down and the volume is up, the sun is in her eyes and the wind is in her hair. She lets her grandfather’s words ground her as she feels a rush of adrenaline surge through her body when she comes upon the first signs of civilization on the outskirts of the town.
“With every rising of the sun, Li’l Darlin’, think of your life as just begun.”