The cars on either side of her crawled forward.. The sun had yet to burn through the gray cloud cover, and the lack of sunlight left Aubrey lethargic. She shifted in her seat, trying to stretch her muscles and get blood flowing to her head.
This early on a Saturday morning she’d expected to have the road to herself. She tried to think if there was some sort of game in town, some reason the roads were full, but her sluggish brain could do little more than focus on working the pedals in the car.
She stared absently out the windshield, her eyes barely focused on the line of cars making its way down the street.
It had been three in the morning when she finally climbed in bed last night, and she’d only done that because she could no longer see the words on her computer screen without her head throbbing in protest. She’d promised herself she would sleep for only a few hours, just enough to clear her head, then wake and finish the assignment. Only four hours later she awoke, intent on finishing the essay, but found herself unable to work. After half an hour of staring at the screen, barely able to understand what she’d written the night before, she abandoned her room, hoping a change of scenery would help her regain her focus.
She wanted to do some real work, accomplishing a few things at the office, hoping that would give her the momentum to finish the paper. But now, sitting in a nearly still car, staring blankly into a gray morning, she thought she’d probably made a mistake.
“Too late now,” she said to herself.
On a different day she might have honked her horn, or jerked the wheel, looking for side streets; Aubrey Payne was not known for her patience, but those sort of outbursts took energy, something that was in short supply today.
A dull ache crept across her forehead and rooted itself behind her left eye. As she finally pulled into the parking lot she put her hand on the side of her head, pressing her palm against the pain. She sighed when realized she didn’t have any painkillers at the office.
She slammed the car door and the sound echoed against the storefronts, most still closed at this hour. The hairs on her arms stood up in the cold air and her dark brown skin rose up in goose-pimples. The weatherman had promised the heavy rain that had blanketed Billings for the last week was finally coming to an end and the heat of summer would make a surprise entrance. It seemed his prediction was premature.
She wore a gray tank-top and the same pair of jeans she’d worn to school the day before. Her thick, dark hair tickled the back of her neck; it had grown longer than she liked, now almost touching her shoulders, but she hadn’t found time to cut it.
The strip-mall where her mother rented office space looked particularly bleak on this overcast morning. Many of the storefronts were vacant, blank signs, their framework exposed, hung over shuttered doors and windows.
Payne Investigations was tucked in the corner space, right between a cellphone retailer and a vinyl record shop. Aubrey was always happy to arrive before the vinyl shop opened; the older woman who ran it often stopped her to chat about declining sales.
Aubrey opened the back seat and grabbed her backpack, slinging it over her shoulder. She’d packed her books and laptop with the intent to finish the history essay at the office.
The office lock was sticky and required both hands as she held it in place and jiggled the key, trying to get it to rotate. Her backpack slipped off her shoulder and jerked her arm down. It banged into the door and she winced, hoping a book made the impact, not her laptop.
The lock clicked open and she pushed the door, slipping in and quickly closing and locking it behind her. She left the lights off so no one passing by would assume they were open.
The space was void of most of the useful things one would expect in an office. A lone desk sat against the wall, most of its surface taken up by a monitor and keyboard. There was a floor lamp next to it so Aubrey and her mother could avoid turning on the harsh overhead lights as much as possible. The rest of the furniture in the store served no purpose in their business.
They’d been renting for two months and had gotten a great price on the storefront. Her mother was so excited to find good space at such a rate that she gladly agreed to dispose of the debris left behind by the previous occupants. The video rental shop that occupied the space before them had gone out of business nearly three years ago and the store had been vacant since then.
Display shelves still hung on every wall. Her mother had joked that if they couldn’t take them down they could use it to house equipment, but when they’d taken off one section only to find the wall behind it crumbling and in need of serious repair it became harder to laugh about.
They’d moved most of the remaining retail furniture into a clump behind the counter, which was affixed to the ground and wouldn’t budge. The furniture sat in a disorganized pile for a week while her mother tried to contact people about selling it or disposing of it. When nothing seemed to come of that Aubrey had taken it upon herself to stack the furniture in such a way that it took up as little floor space as possible. She’d been quite proud of it at the time, amazed at how she’d been able to collapse so much material into such a small space. But as the weeks dragged on her mother’s attention was occupied mostly by their caseload and securing new clients. Aubrey was sure her mother didn’t even see the mess anymore.
She wished she could do the same as she walked into the store, but her eyes pulled without her control to what now looked unsightly and disorganized. She briefly played with the idea of moving things, if only so her mother might notice the change and remember it was all still there, but the unwritten essay hung in the back of her mind.
As she passed the counter she unconsciously clenched her jaw, only noticing when the pressure of it sent a stab of pain through her skull, transforming the ache into a lancing pain. She stumbled and grabbed her head. The pain lessened after a few seconds.
“Why do I do this to myself?” she asked the empty office.
The essay was due on Monday, and Sunday was her father’s day with her. With the weather possibly getting nice, he would want to drive to the country, try to fish. She would have little chance to work on the essay then.
She set her backpack down on the desk and saw a blinking light on their voicemail. She forgot the pain in her head and pulled the notepad out of the desk’s top drawer. Each page was a form with space for case and client details. As spacey as her mother could be about getting the office in order, she was rigid and stern about keeping detailed case information.
The voicemail was a standard case, a manager looking for someone to run a background check on a possible new hire. Her mother would be happy, these were the sort of steady, reliable clients a private investigator relied on. She jotted down the important details while absentmindedly inspecting the framed photo of her mother at her academy graduation, her blue uniform clean and new.
Next she cleaned up some case notes, looking up data on a few outstanding individuals, and getting things organized for her mother on Monday. While Aubrey could do a lot of the database work, only her mother could really do the leg work or surveillance.
It was nearly nine before she finished it all, but she had been right that accomplishing something would clear out her brain. She felt more energized than she had in days. She set up her laptop and opened her essay.
She knew what she wrote was pretty bad. She didn’t bother to look up the exact information or site anything correctly, instead she put placeholders in the text, getting the main body of work out with the intention to go back and fill in details later. That was the only way she felt she could get through almost ten pages of writing in one sitting without losing her mind. If the end result was a C paper at best, that was still more than enough for her to pass History and graduate on time.
Her cell phone rang while she was working on the closing paragraph. She cursed and typed harder, slamming her fingers into the keys. Each mechanical chirp of the phone grated at her more, bringing back the painful ache in her head.
Just before the voicemail could catch she snapped the phone up in her hand, barking harshly in the receiver, “What do you want?”
“I hope you’re not answering the office phone like that,” her mother answered.
“Sorry, I was working on something.”
“I got your note. Why’d you go to the office?”
“I just thought I’d concentrate better here.”
“Judging by that tone it worked. Did you finish your paper?”
Aubrey rolled her eyes. Her mother rarely intervened in her schoolwork, but the few times she did it made her feel like a child.
“Yeah Mom, it’s almost done. I’ll need to clean it up, but I was going to do that after I go fishing with Dad tomorrow.”
She looked over the last sentence she’d typed, seeing at least three typos. If the whole paper was that bad it would take her a long time to clean it up. She sighed heavily.
“That’s what I’m calling about baby, I don’t think I want you to go fishing tomorrow.”
“You and me both, but I’m sure it’s what Dad will want.” She pressed her hand into her forehead.
“Have you read the news today?”
“Been busy.” She didn’t like being so terse with her mother, but she didn’t have the energy to play nice, and her mother understood her moods better than most people.
“A boy drowned in the river last night, and another one was almost killed. It’s just horrible.” She paused and Aubry said nothing, trying to run her eyes over a paragraph“All that snow-melt from the winter, and now this rain all spring, the river is just too dangerous. I don’t want you near it.”
“I’ll take any excuse to not fish.”
“It seems one of the boys went to your school.”
“Oh, what was his name?”
“I don’t know. They will probably do a more detailed story tomorrow.”
Aubrey wanted to say more, but could think of nothing. There were thousands of kids at her school, the chances it was someone she even knew where slim.
“Ok, well, I’ll tell Dad it’s just movies and pizza tomorrow.” She thought that he might even let her work on her essay while the watched some movies.
There was a pause while her mother sucked in a deep breath, “I can tell him, after all I’m the one who -”
Aubrey didn’t let her finish, “No Mom, I’ll do it. It’s cool.”
“Ok, thank you baby. When will you be home?”
“Don’t know, at least an hour. I should really do more work on this.” She rested her head gently in her hand, dreading looking over the words on the page.
“See you then.”
“Yep, bye.” She hung up.
Turning back to the paper, Aubrey was able to proof read almost half of it before frustration and exhaustion overwhelmed her. She opened a browser to glance at the Billings Gazette, just to see the details of the story so she would know what to tell her father. There were still no names, just one body pulled from the river and another boy who was still in the hospital. She wasn’t sure where her mother heard one of them might go to her school, but her mother often got information from her old friends on the force.She packed her bag quickly, intent on going home and napping for at least a few hours. She cast the pile of furniture one last angry glance before locking the door behind her. Maybe when school was out she’d make it her goal to get someone to haul the junk away.