Disclaimer: Dis I'd like to claim, but can't. grrrr
Author's Note: Quality Control is of the opinion that Officer Gulch's eventual death certificate will read: Cause of Death: DG; I am of the opinion that CoD: Princesses is more accurate. This actually has nothing to do with this chapter/epilogue, or at least not much, but, hey, it's a valid point.
Elmer Gulch stared dully into the mirror as he slowly straightened his tie with deceptively steady hands. DG'd given it to him, an apology for using one of his old ones to test out the new paper shredder at the station. He'd been lucky it hadn't strangled him, she'd been lucky he hadn't strangled her. She'd been what, ten at the time and driving him crazy while Emily ran some errands. Knee deep in trouble as always...as always...his hand trembled a bit as he finished tightening the knot, taking a deep breath to steady himself, the cop reached for the suit jacket slung over an nearby chair and settled it into place over aching, bone-weary shoulders. It was time to go.
He took the cruiser, it seemed right somehow, though he was driving far slower than he could ever remember doing where the brat was concerned, but the truth was, he didn't want to get there. Because then it would be real. Final. Gone.
A month ago he'd been standing on his front step of his home, watching a tornado rip through the fields far too close to the old Gale place for comfort. He should have been down in his basement like any sensible man under the circumstances, but his shoulder blades had been twitching like crazy – DG had been growing increasingly restless of late and he'd had the irrational urge to drive over and demand whether she'd done something to cause the freak storm. Common sense had eventually prevailed, there wasn't anything he could do against a tornado after all, though he hadn't been able to sleep all night, and then in the morning...
The school parking lot was overflowing with cars. It was not the best of locations, but the gymnasium was the only place big enough to hold a memorial service of this size...the policeman parked in front of the fire hydrant and couldn't summon the energy to care. Staring blankly at the old building, the cop took another steadying breath and forced himself to get out of the car.
Elmer – and the rest of the town – had dropped everything to search for the family, scouring the fields by day, calling all the hospitals within a hundred mile radius at night. Twice a concerned nurse on the other end of the line had sent one of his fellow cops over to check on him when he'd passed out from sheer exhaustion mid conversation. He'd bumped it up to a two hundred mile radius by the end of the first week, even though the storm had been so short-lived there was no way they could have been blown that far. As one week bled into two, the cop stared at the phone for hours before finally picking up the receiver and, with shaking, reluctant fingers, started calling morgues.
His dress shoes scuffed the gravel as he trudged across the parking lot. Little knots of gathered mourners fell silent as he passed. Distantly, he noticed Farmer Spencer open his mouth only to close it again, unable to think of anything to say.
The town had stopped looking long before Elmer Gulch had been willing to give up – stopped looking for survivors, stopped looking for bodies. Hank's truck had been flung into one of the trees behind the house, DG's motorcycle had been tucked safely away in one of the back sheds, so they knew that the family hadn't just gone on a trip and forgotten to tell anyone about it. That whole first week Elmer's shoulders had twitched like he'd known DG was off getting herself into to trouble, if he could just figure out where. Even after he'd given up hope, even after he'd known she must...even then it had taken what was darn closed to an intervention from his fellow officers to get him to stop looking. He'd even torn up the cover of that old well on Robert Gibbons' place, just to see whether, impossibly, she'd somehow managed to fall in it again. He'd been desperate by then because, dammit, the imp deserved better than to be left lying in a ditch somewhere.
Every bone in his body seemed to creak with the centuries of age he felt settling on his shoulders as he sank down into a seat in the front row. He didn't think anyone would mind – not that he'd move if they did – after he'd finished calling morgues he'd tried to track down her extended family, but not a relative – long lost or otherwise – did he find. Nor any previous addresses, it was almost as if they'd magically appeared during that rodeo fifteen years ago as suddenly as they'd vanished. No matter where Elmer had looked, there had been nothing to find.
He spent the memorial service staring at the enlarged photos someone had set up on the old school stage, wondering what idiot had chosen that particular picture. DG's grad portrait had been all that was poised and professional, and absolutely lacking in any of the spirit and life that had been DG. They'd have done better to use that old newspaper clipping of her class camping trip. Sure it was a few years old, but the image of the Mistress of Mayhem sitting calmly poking the fire to life while the rest of the camp – and her unfortunate classmates – lay in shambles was so much truer to life.
The wake was held in the cafeteria, pockets of subdued laughter cut through the murmur of voices as everyone shared memories, relived their favourite disasters. Elmer stood quietly off to the side, staring at the French apple pie someone had brought, the pie he'd always ordered to let DG know he'd caught her. Even now he wanted to write her a ticket for speeding through life too damn fast. A movement in the corner of his eye caused him to look up into the tear filled face of Maggie Spencer; he remembered wondering once, years ago on the day of his parent's funeral, what it felt like to have your lifelong nemesis die. He thought knew. Unable to stay there a moment longer, the cop turned without saying a word and walked away.
James Bentley found him an hour later, sitting on the platform that rimmed the old water tower – you hava offisher up – staring into the distance and letting the memories wash over him. The boy came bearing beer and a complete unwillingness to leave his fellow cop alone. Elmer could understand how grieving person sitting in high places had the tendency to make people nervous, but beer, DG and the water tower had never been a good combination, and sometimes a person just wanted to be left to grieve in private. So he'd slid down the ladder intent on finding somewhere else to mourn, only to have James follow insistently after him. Bentley got the point, however, when Elmer pulled out the pocket knife he'd automatically carried with him and rammed it in his front truck tire. Officer Gulch might consider apologizing for that someday; Elmer Gulch didn't give a fuck.
He spent a lot of time walking about over the next few weeks, he'd always had the propensity to wander when thinking, only now he had a tendency to gravitate to the river, or to the Spencer's bullpen, or out to the old Gale place. Terror was given a new name for young Tim Beckley the day the idiot adolescent decided that the disappearance of its owner meant that DG's beloved motorcycle was fair game for a joyride. It had taken three men to keep Elmer Gulch off the boy, and in the end Officer Bentley had had to take charge of the kid when his co-worker's only idea of a punishment was a firing squad. The motorcycle had been returned to the shed, gassed up and sparkling clean.
The days bled together, and slowly, ever so slowly, the grieving cop got his feet back under him. His temper settled down, his shoulders didn't twitch quite so often, the hushed whispers and wary glances began to ease back into quiet concern, and then into familiar acknowledgement. Elmer found his way back to his old routine, or rather his old old routine, the routine he'd barely had time to settle into before insanity had descended on their little farm town. Life moved on until, finally, he found himself parking his cruiser in the same old spot, resigning himself to the shades of gray, wondering if being a small town cop had always been this boring...
...and DG went speeding past on her motorcycle.
Every muscle in the policeman's body froze as he sat there for an eternity, staring after her in absolute stunned silence before, with a shuddering ripple, the world put itself back in order. Tires squealing, old accustomed imprecations being muttered under his breath, the cop took off in pursuit, settling back into the much preferred old routine with something akin to relief, yet so much more profound. DG was moving like a bat out of hell but Elmer Gulch was hot on her trail. There were questions he wanted answered. He wanted to know where her family had been this past year; he wanted to know why they'd never told anyone they were ok; he wanted to give her a ticket...