An officer looks into the heart of darkness—and finds a light
He walked out to his car expecting to see frost on the windshield or perhaps even his breath visible in the air, the water in his lungs showing the visible spirit he hadn’t felt inside for years. Naturally, he didn’t even get that much.
Christmas morning—and it was approaching 70°. It wasn’t that he’d prefer to be cold, and he could even deal with yet another expectation being shattered; it was that the trade-off was apparently having to deal with even larger hordes of asshole children being unsupervised by their asshole parents.
These kids were running about the streets making noise and leaving toys on the ground for their absentee guardians to run over with their overpriced cars, whereupon they would inevitably complain about the very ingratitude they instilled within their children themselves.
This train of thought came and went with Officer Christian’s hand in a rictus on the handle of his cruiser’s door handle, accompanied by a sneer he wasn’t even aware was usually present.
Roll call was the usual repetitive monotone of a supervisor younger than he was in a profession almost as old as the prostitution he held it akin to. The few new tidbits were filed away in the appropriate places, to be processed over a cup of coffee that would help quell the cacophony in his head, left there by the previous night’s events hosted by spiced rum and cola. The probationary officers present were leery of him, but that was to be expected, too.
(“Why aren’t you a T.O. any more, Pete?” he’d been asked a while back. “I am a training officer,” he’d replied. “I’m the lesson. They don’t need to ride in my car to see what they need to avoid.” The petitioner raised an eyebrow in consideration, and fairly quickly agreed.)
Everything was darkness. He worked the dayshift now, but the volume of light didn’t have much to do with what that truly means, and it’s difficult to describe to someone who doesn’t know about it firsthand.
Officer Peter Christian was in the top of his class in the beginning, a real blue-chip stock in a field filled with well-intended mediocrity, and he indeed went places. Unfortunately, those places don’t always have a road map.
A pothole here, a pothole there, that’s fine...even the occasional flat tire. Wear and tear is forecast and dealt with, but when you stay off the beaten path long enough, you stop seeing the tourist spots and instead only see the back alleys and maintenance sheds and the piles of garbage that collect from keeping the hotspots pretty and attractive, and the line you walk between being a citizen and a peace keeper doesn’t get thinner; it gets thicker.
And like a frog slowly coming to a boil in a pot of water, sometimes you don’t know it’s happening until it’s too late to jump out, because you didn’t even know the muscles allowing you to do so were atrophying. But even all that is expected and dealt with along the way. Officer Pete, however, had more stops on his path than most and the tolls, like a Jersey turnpike, added up quickly.
“What’s with that guy?” a P.O. asked his training officer after line-up. “He OK? He just freaks me out. I mean, why’s he still here? He can leave by now, right? Why isn’t he a sarge by now or something?”
The T.O. raised an eyebrow, but measured his response. The kid shouldn’t have asked such a thing, but it was a thing with this generation…and Pete was right, he was a lesson.
“I get it,” the training officer said to his rookie. “I thought the same thing, but remember that wreck on Hemphill a few years ago? The one where Hendricks died? I know they talked about it in the academy.”
The kid nodded. Officer mortality doesn’t get voiced unless absolutely mandatory, no matter the generation.
“I was there, too. Worst scene I’ve ever been on.” He paused. “Pete Christian was holding Hendricks’ hand when he died. He was smiling, Pete was. Whole world was hell around him, and he kept cool when he knew that was it for Hendricks.”
The fledgling was quiet, and his eyes narrowed in thought. “So that was it…Yeah, I can see that doing it.”
“Actually,” his T.O. said, “no. That wasn’t it. The critical incident debriefing afterwards? We’re all there, it’s mandatory, and the session leader is asking if this is our first one. Half of us raised our hands. They ask second, third one? Fourth? Hands stop going up, except his. Pete has to answer when asked, ‘11, I think.’ Eleven times this guy’s had to get just the mandatory counseling—he thinks? I been here ten years and I’ve had two, the instructor’s only hosted five of these statewide, so she doesn’t know what to say but Pete does. Just looks at the floor, even smiled once. So yeah…he’s weird. He earned it though. Let him be.”
Officer Pete was very much “letting it be” all right, lowering his hand into a sack of Lemon Heads he’d found orphaned on the ground at a wreck scene, tossed from a car that was more scrap metal than parts now.
He was watching the sunset from the side of a ridge that bisected the city and in the comfort of a private lot he had a gate key to for a house that had never been built. He’d escorted the owners’ daughter to an E.R. once when she was in anaphylactic shock from a bee sting, and the guy was determined to show gratitude (even though she’d still died, which is why the house had never been built nor the property sold). He suddenly jerked his head to the left upon sensing movement out of the corner of his eye, but quickly dismissed it, despite the adrenaline advising him to do otherwise. It was just another shadow.
“Everything was darkness,” had we mentioned that? The darkened hue the world took on was almost polite; it would creep in at the edges like varicose veins, building up slowly but surely over time…but the shadows, they were downright inconvenient. Always moving at the corner of your eye and always randomly.
Peter Christian had long since accepted he might be crazy now (you’re allowed to be politically incorrect in your own head, for the record) and if that was the case what could he do about it? But the occasional darting shadow, that he never got used to.
The Lemon Heads had brought joy, but also an irritable stomach. The sunset was just what he’d hoped for, though, and that was a treat unto itself. Something about transitions had always been appealing to him. From daylight to dusk, to that spot where a woman’s neck turns into shoulder…it had always fascinated him, so he took them in silently, and occasionally even with a smile, but he needed to head home now. Max was waiting, his only true companion. He’d be the first to admit that he’d run the other companions off over the years, but Max figured out what the others could not: that his inability to speak set him apart from the rest and so naturally, the last man standing would not be a man, but a dog.
Home again. The noise outside had subsided from its comparably horrible morning (school being out was like a community service sentence you have to carry out in your own home), but a strange calm had settled over Pete tonight, and even with noise, he may have been less than annoyed.
The TV had been left off and the bills were neatly collated on the dinner table, placed strategically around the pop-top canned goods bachelors were known for leaving out for convenience, and Pete had even decided to clean his gun for the first time since in-service training. It was a holiday of peace, so why not? And there had been so little peace in his life these last few years…every little bit would help. Just the smell of gun oil was appealing for the order he knew it would bring, for the precision it allowed and the continual function. Yes, such a relaxing idea. Max whimpered down by his feet, sensing something amiss. He picked up the pistol and hesitated before unloading it, admiring it for what it was and how useful it could be for problems that could be solved no other way…when he heard sirens.
Pete closed his eyes, the gun still in is hand, when the sirens were also met with squeals of joy. Joy?
He laughed. His hand, once again in a rictus, but this time around a pistol instead of a door handle, began to relax as he listened to the sounds of “The Santa Train,” of all things. Cops, firemen, EMS workers…driving all around town to deliver care packages to needy kids by the thousand (over 10,000, actually).
All this darkness. Bitterness. Gone, in a gale of children’s laughter. He was remembering.
His uniform was still in the corner, draped over a chair. If he moved fast, he could don it again and catch up with the train, the train filled with uniforms like his delivering joy instead of heartbreak, sadness…
So much anger, so much waste. Yes. He had time after all. Whatever bridge he had just crossed in his heart, he could already feel a difference, as if his heart was growing two sizes too big. But was it such a shock?
I mean, after all…It’s Christmas.