Jasper’s stomach twisted as it always had when he got the intuition that secrets were going to unfold. It felt like a piercing canker forming in his guts, in his mind. Sometimes it was enough to wake him up.
He shot out of bed, slightly tilted his head to the right, and glanced at the mirror. Only twenty-three, he appeared much older— courtesy of his nocturnal lifestyle. Grey hair salted a black mop resting over a sunken face. His cheeks and neckline revealed that shaving was never a daily routine and the baby face meant it didn’t need to be.
He was a talented reporter in a dreadfully slow small town, just trying to uncover a break-out worthy of keeping him at the paper.
“Check please,” he said in exasperation to no one except the tabby that shared his living space. Jasper had no clue whether the feline was male or female. It was fluffy, orange, and “Cat.”
He lived alone yet day to day with the ambition of spotlight, which had become more of a shadow as of late. He knew his writing— the stuff he wrote in his spare time, keeping him up when he didn’t have to investigate— was up there with the publishable. Most of it was better than some of that hooey. What he needed was just one person to pick up his work, to have faith, and his career would rocket.
His thoughts subsided with one glance at the dusty kitchen clock. It was approximately ten thirty-nine in the morning, approximately because he had to reset the damn clock every week, or by the end of the month he would be two days ahead or behind. Why he kept an old clock like that around anyway, or even bothered to look at it when he had a digital alarm on the nightstand, was beyond him— maybe because it was a gift from his parents when he started college, and he was the sentimental type; maybe because he liked, sometimes, being on his own special time rather than adhering to the deadlines of others. Regardless, it was still early, too early for the nightly state his reporting had thrust him into as of late… earlier than ever for the striking intuition to jolt him out of bed.
It was a cool winter morning in the drowsy town, and normally the coldness asked then pleaded then demanded he sleep longer. But for some reason, and he trusted that reason, his senses had awoken him, so he began to get ready.
Ready for what? That was still unknown.
Shunning the idea of a shower, he slicked greasy, unkempt hair beneath his standard beanie, which was black with some Greek symbol. He then found amongst the organize chaos of his brown paneled apartment the keys to the old gray Geo Prism waiting on the sidewalk in front of his apartment. The automobile was covered in more cancerous rust than paint, further proving that it was not easy being a writer in a small town.
Upon command, the car stubbornly cranked its normal drone, then fired in whir. He sighed, stepped back out, and pulled an overdrawn credit card from his wallet to scrape off what he could of the snow that was blanketing the mobile. Upon completion, he brushed the snow off his black sleeves, returned to his rustic tomb, slammed the door shut, then popped the noisy clutch and sighed again as the car lurched forward, taking him down Main Street.
The town seemed unusually gloomy and particularly overcast for the light amount of snow falling. The generic bulbs which were made to look old-fashioned were lighting the street like a runway, either lasting too long or coming on far too soon. Every building on the street dated back, easily, to over one hundred years ago. Jasper felt he could hear the walls and old, buried cobblestone urging him toward something equally elegant, equally primordial.
This place is about one hundred years past hibernation, he thought to himself.
Although Jasper spent the majority of his time wondering what stories the town had to tell and what its people had seen. He was quite sure that, if even the half of it could be told, he would not be stuck as he was now. He felt like an old greasy mechanic with a splinter jammed in his palm— even though he picked past the calluses and caused himself pain, a greasy layer still covered what he tried to bring to the surface.
Jasper reached the end of the street, looked both ways, and rounded a corner. The town’s historical park then came into full view, emitting a motorcade of flashing vehicles.
But not uncommon.
“Fucking oinker, Fred.”
His raspy mumbles steamed against the cold windshield.
Jasper had long since viewed the Chief of Police like that of the blown head gasket of the prism, letting the sludge of corruption spray across the town. Nothing was ever proven with Fred Helms on a case, and maybe nothing was often the truth, but Jasper followed his intuition. He followed the roar of his ulcerous stomach.
He also knew it was possible to be wrong.
Maybe, he thought, I’m just jealous of the medals and decorations he carries from his —noteworthy, well-reported past.
He had, after all, read all of the newspaper archives in which Fred Helms’s military services were documented, all the way up to his return from Iraq. And he had a feeling that the man’s front page “Welcome Home” was the mosquito-bite tip of the iceberg. When it came to his involvement in the community, he was as active as the cement paved over the cobblestone, letting the town’s weight fall on his back.
But Fred was getting old, and times were different, the area was different. The regional oil and gas boom (boom was the word others used, while Jasper thought of it as an oil and gas exploitation) had brought with it an outside element, workers not just interested in driving trucks and the career benefits of hydraulic fracturing. They were more interested in the fracturing of veins.
Fred Helms had too many blind spots, and could not account for the influx of pre or ex-convict newbies in the town. He could not account for what they might be pedaling. With a minimal police force in a minimal district, he was being consumed by the weeds faster than they could be plucked.
Either that, or he welcomed the thieving greenery.
Or maybe I’m just jealous, Jasper thought. Maybe I’m jealous because I want the people of this town to look at me the way they look at him. With reverence!
Of course, this town was putting it lightly. He knew that he would settle for nothing less than becoming a fixture on the set of the world’s stage.
An ambulance siren whaled from the rear, diverting his attention away from his own scrambled thoughts, and instantaneously Jasper witnessed its call to arms. Beyond the small crowd gathered around the swing set was an atrocity, a fixture on a far less appealing stage. He knew what it appeared to be but did not want to believe what his eyes were seeing through the still-chilled windshield.
Jasper stopped fast enough to stall, almost didn’t bother to park, and grabbed his camera before emerging from his car. As he began his trot up the cracked sidewalk, he saw Ed’s eyes lift in his direction. The air around the chief was a whisper of fleeing breath, and through the mist the pair’s eyes met. With a disquieted, distempered look, Fred began to march in Jaspers direction.
“Just fucking go,” Fred demanded, following with a plead. “Out of respect… please… just not right now.”
Jasper was struck. He had never seen the veteran lose his military-instilled discipline before. His gut told him to prod, push further and steal the story. His brain, however, overruled. Broken hands and a shattered ego would make it hard to write a story about broken truths and dreams.
If Fred’s words or the look on his face were any indication, and if the brief glimpses Jasper managed to steal of the poor, blue remains idling on the swing were serving his memory correctly, then the icy center of this story was Evelynn Helms.
Fred’s estranged daughter.
Jasper had never seen death before, not up close and hometown personal. The words “Just fucking go,” had not felt like a threat. They felt instead like a warm blanket of relief, topped off with the last can of Progresso chicken noodle soup in his cabinet. While the little journalist on his shoulder felt wounded by Fred’s verbal assault, screamed in his ear, “You have every right to be here!”, he felt more than happy, at the very least, to approach this from a distance. To cool down while warming up.
Without a word further, they both reversed and returned to their previous stations. Jasper’s was his cold, clunker of a carriage. Fred’s was, quite simply, the cold, standing with a group of personnel around his daughter’s remains. Despite how obviously disturbed he was, worse, it was disturbing how equally in his element he seemed.
Once in his carriage, Jasper looked at the rearview mirror, almost as if to share his thoughts with the person staring back. Or to scold himself for not doing his duties.
It’s mighty cold out, he thought, watching Fred and the others regroup around the dead girl.