Something touched her ankle. Grace reached down without looking and retrieved a ball of crumpled paper. She peeled it open and flattened it without a thought to what the paper might contain or why it was discarded under her usual table. She methodically ironed out the creases with the fleshy side of her hand while taking in the bustle of the Chuck-o-Rama.
Today wasn’t much different than any other day. The Chuck-o-Rama provided a warm, homey atmosphere and a themed buffet for each day of the week. Thursday’s were “Family Italian” which Grace both loved and feared because the food was so good she was likely to eat too much which made her sleepy during her shift.
On a slow night, staring at the cursor while listening to Dottie drone on about her deadbeat son and adorable grand kids was enough to put her to sleep even when she wasn’t full of heavy carbs. But, there weren’t many slow nights anymore. Sarge blamed it on meth. Always the tweekers. Grace concluded it was the population boom: more people, more crime.
Grace came to the Chuck-o-Rama every day before her shift which meant she came shortly before the dinner rush. Today, there was an elderly couple in a booth near the windows, a man who looked like a trucker eating by himself in the middle of the room and a young mother with a baby and two little ones in booster seats.
Feeling that the piece of paper was as smooth as it would ever be, she began to read:
I can’t take it anymore. Every day I see the aftermath of people’s terrible actions. The abuse and violence happens and then I show up and cannot do a damn thing to undo it. I carry around so much anger and heartbreak that no one wants to be near me. I don’t even want to be near myself. So I’ve decided to end it. To anyone who could possibly care, I tried, but it was never enough.
Grace dropped her fork. It hit her plate with a loud clang, then it hit the table and fell onto the floor. She read the note again. She had never seen a suicide note, but this seemed like one. Something about it was familiar. She began to panic. What if this was someone on the force? What if she had dispatched them to these horrible, violent scenes?
She surveyed the dining room. It didn’t look warm and inviting. It looked like no one had cared since a remodel in the eighties, with its gaudy floral drapes that no longer matched the dingy worn carpet. Her fellow diners weren’t the neighborly folks of a moment ago—who knew how many bodies that trucker had left along the highway and the mother looked frazzled because her children wouldn’t stop screaming. Even Terrence, the attendant at the buffet, who had smiled at Grace when she went through the line, now scowled at the children while rubbing his temple. It was as if the filter that made her world cheery had suddenly been ripped away. She re-read the note.
She heard Sandra say, “How are you today, Miss Porter?” but couldn’t look up at her server right away. “Miss Porter? Are you okay?” Sandra must have picked up on her distress. She sounded worried.
Grace suspected Sandra’s overly-friendly concern was forced and fake. Her saccharin voice hurt Grace’s ears and churned her stomach. She took a deep breath. “I’m fine Sandy dear,” she said trying very hard to be fine. Feeling more composed, she looked up from the table and said, “Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course, Miss Porter, what do you need?”
“I’ve never really thought about the other people who sit here when I’m gone. Are there any other regulars who like to sit here?”
Sandy’s eyes moved up and to the left. She hugged herself with one arm and put a hand to her chin, apparently thinking very hard. Then, as if she had done all the thinking she could do, she snapped back into server mode and started wiping down the table next to Grace. “I don’t think I have any other regulars. Not like you, Miss Porter. Most people come in once and I never see them again, or bring their family for special occasions. The closest we get to regulars are the weekly brunch crowd.”
“Then can you remember who sat here recently, maybe earlier today or last night? Perhaps a person who looked really depressed, or someone who was sitting here writing something?”
“Sorry, Miss Porter, I don’t remember anyone like that. Are you sure everything’s okay?”
“Sure. Don’t you worry. I’ve got to get going. You have a nice night, okay?”
“Yeah. You too, Miss Porter. Don’t forget your mints. I brought you a couple extra.”
“Thanks, you sure know me well.”
Grace grabbed her bag and hurried around the corner to the side door of the Meridian Police Department. She couldn’t wait to get on the radio. Somewhere, out there, was a person on the brink.
Grace logged into her station, threw on her headset and held a hand up to Dottie before she could start with a single “You’ll never guess what Trent did. . . .” She scrolled through the call log frantically looking for a clue: B&E, Drive-by, Assault, Domestic—What the heck is wrong with people? she thought—but nothing related to the note. She threw her headset on the desk and sat back in her chair.
A call came in. Dottie took it. “Dispatch.”
“Car 3. Washington here. Wanted to let you know we’re bringing in our dear friend Josh Pearson.”
“Gosh darn it, that boy. What did he do now?” said Dottie, bringing up the file and typing the new details.
“Driving without a license. At least he didn’t try to resist this time. And he doesn’t appear to be drunk, yet.”
“Okay. Got it. You know, if I didn’t know better, I’d think that boy has a thing for you.”
“He does spend a lot of time in the back of my car.”
They both laughed. Dottie ended the call.
It’s not Washington, thought Grace.
Grace took a 911 call, an active domestic. She asked the caller to stay on the line, but she hung up. Serge would blame meth, Grace thought. Car 5 was closest.
“Gotcha Gracie,” Officer Curtis responded to her dispatch.
“Be careful now,” said Grace, “she didn’t mention a weapon, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one by now.”
“Abuse and violence happens, then we clean up the mess,” said Officer Curtis. “Off to observe the aftermath. We’ll check in if there’s anything to report.” He clicked off.
Grace felt the chill of dizziness behind her eyes. What if that domestic was because someone was trying to commit suicide and the spouse tried to stop them, or what if the depressed person was lashing out because they were too afraid to end it? Her thoughts swirled.
“Dottie, has there been anything else today, like a, a suicide or attempted suicide? Grace sat on her shaking hands and tried to slow her breathing.
Dottie shook her head.
“Have you noticed any of the officers acting strange? Sad or depressed?
Dottie raised an eyebrow.
“I mean it. It’s important. Have you?”
“Whoa, what is up with you, fireplug?”
Grace was about to answer when a call came in. Dottie held up her index finger to Grace and punched the receive button, so they could both hear the call.
“Car 5 checking in. That domestic was nothin’. Some people simply should NOT be in a room together, but you know . . . marriage.” Officer Curtis laughed. “So what’s next on the list of people’s terrible actions, any more plague scares?”
Dottie chuckled, “Not today, but I’m sure it’s coming.”
“Imagine, attacking your neighbors because you’re sure ground squirrels gave them the plague. What is this world coming to?” said Officer Lambert, Curtis’s partner.
“You know, those ground squirrels do have the plague, so you be careful ’cause your next call is suspicious activity at the park. Head to the south end of Kathryn Albertson. You might want to bring some cages and take home some of those pet birds people abandoned. That Chinese golden pheasant thing they reported on the news sure looks pretty.”
“Pretty can also mean expensive tastes and I already had my fair share of heartbreak, you know what I mean? Okay, we’re off to the park to curb more abuse and violence. Check with you soon.”
Grace jumped up. “Officer Curtis, wait!” she yelled, her voice echoing through the precinct.
“Yeah, Gracie, what is it?”
“It was you.”
“It was me, what?”
“You wrote that note. The suicide note I found at the Chuck-o-Rama.”
Dottie’s eyes became a question and an accusation as her jaw dropped.
“Suicide note?” Officer Lambert’s voice held concern and disbelief.
The room filled with silence.
Grace felt like she was falling into Dottie’s huge gaping mouth. She felt the scrape of her rough taste buds and smelled her rotting teeth.
Then a nervous laugh broke through. “Oh, musta forgot to pick up one of my scribbles. Don’t you worry. That’s just how I get the darkness out, so I can deal with the job. That place has probably seen hundreds of those notes over the years. Makes me able to do what I do. I just leave it on the page.”
That made sense. Grace wanted to believe him. “That is good news. And good for you for finding a healthy way to deal with your feelings,” Grace said.
She looked around the dingy office, feeling the pulse of the blinking fluorescent light over the stained coffee pot, and noticed for the first time that the the wallpaper, yellowed with age, was peeling at the corners. Yeah, it’s good for him, she thought, but I may never see my cheery world again.
Maria L. Berg enjoys brisk swims in the Pacific Northwest. Her flash fiction has been published in Five on the Fifth, Waking Writer and Fictional Pairings. When not writing adult fiction, she writes and photo-illustrates Gator McBumpypants adventure stories.