Long Bright River: A Novel (9 page)

BOOK: Long Bright River: A Novel
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Finally, I navigate back to Kacey’s page.

The post at the top, on October 28, is by someone named Sheila McGuire.

Kace get in touch,
it says.

There are no comments beneath it. In fact, the last time Kacey seems
to have posted at all is a month ago, on October 2.
Doing something that scares me.

I click on the
Message
button. And, for the first time in five years, I contact my sister.

Kacey,
I write.
I’m worried about you. Where are you?

The next morning, Bethany is early, for once. I’ve recently resorted to bribing Thomas to let me leave in the morning without a scene: stickers that, when a count of ten is reached, lead to a coloring book of his choosing. Today, therefore, I get to work early, and head to the locker room. I’m wiping my shoes with a paper towel when something on the little TV mounted in the corner catches my attention.

—A wave of violence in Kensington, says the anchor, solemn, and I straighten up a bit.

The media, it seems, has finally picked up the story. If these murders had been happening in Center City, we would have heard about the first one a month ago.

There’s only one other officer in the room, a young woman who started not too long ago. Today, she’s getting off C-shift. I don’t remember her name.

—The bodies of four women have recently been discovered in separate incidents initially believed to be overdoses. But new information is causing police to question whether foul play might have been involved.

Four.

I only know about three: the woman we found on the Tracks, still unidentified; seventeen-year-old Katie Conway; and the eighteen-year-old home health aide, Anabel Castillo.

I sit down on one of the wooden benches that run between the lockers. I wait, closing my eyes, suddenly imagining my life divided sharply: before this moment and after it. It’s how I’ve felt every time I’ve ever
received bad news. Time slows in the breath people take after saying,
I have something to tell you.

They give out the names, beginning with Katie Conway. Her mother is interviewed, distraught, a mess, almost certainly intoxicated. Her voice is too slow. She was a good girl, says the mother, about Katie. Always a good kid.

I’m waiting, breathless. It can’t be Kacey, I think. It can’t be: someone would have told me, surely. I don’t talk about her at work, but we do share the same last name—Fitzpatrick, our father’s—if nothing else. I check my cell phone. No calls have come in.

Next, the anchor moves on to Anabel Castillo, the home health aide, and then to the unidentified woman Eddie Lafferty and I located on the Tracks. No picture, of course, is available for her. But I can still see her clearly in my mind. I’ve been seeing her behind my eyelids every night before I fall asleep.

I know they will move next to a discussion of the fourth victim, the one I haven’t heard about yet. Slowly, and then quickly, my vision dims.

—This morning, says the anchor, a fourth and possibly related victim was discovered in Kensington. She has been identified, say the police, but they’re waiting to release her name until her family has been notified.

—Are you okay? says my companion in the locker room, and I nod, but it’s not true.


When I was a child, I used to have episodes. A doctor once told me that they were ‘panic attacks,’ though that’s a term I dislike. They consisted of minutes or hours in which I thought I was dying, in which I counted every heartbeat, certain that it would be my very last. I haven’t had one of these episodes in years, not since high school, but suddenly, in the locker room, I recognize the signs of one approaching. The world darkens at the edges. I feel as if I can’t see, as if the information my eyes are receiving no longer makes sense to my mind. I try to slow my breathing.

Sergeant Ahearn, ruddy and impassive, is standing over me. Alongside him is the young female officer. She’s got blond hair and a slight build. She’s pouring water on my forehead in a slow trickle.

—My mom told me to do this once, the rookie is saying to Sergeant Ahearn.

—She’s an EMT, she adds, for emphasis.

A deep sense of shame comes over me. I feel as if a secret about me has been revealed. I wipe the water off my forehead. I try too quickly to sit up, to laugh, to make light of what has happened. But I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and my face is gray and grim and frightening. I feel light-headed again.


Sergeant Ahearn, despite my protests that I am fine, insists I take a sick day. We’re in his office. I’m sitting in a chair across from him, trying to will myself to feel better.

—Can’t have you fainting on the job, he says. Go home and rest.

Fainting.
An embarrassing word—one Ahearn seems to relish saying aloud to me. Is he hiding a smile? I imagine him retelling the episode at roll call, and shudder.

Then I pull myself together and rise from my chair. Before I leave, though, I gather my wits and my courage and ask him.

—I heard they found another body in the district, I say.

He looks at me. Only one? he says. Lucky us.

—Not an OD, I say. A woman. Another strangulation.

He says nothing.

—The news picked it up, I say.

He nods.

—Do we have a description? I ask him.

He sighs. Why, Mickey? he says.

—It’s only that I was wondering if I knew her. If I’d ever brought her in, I mean.

He picks up his phone. He looks something up. He reads aloud to me.

—Christina Walker, according to her ID. African-American, twenty years old, five-foot-four, one-fifty.

Not Kacey.

Someone else’s Kacey.

—Thank you, I say to Ahearn.

Through his window, I regard for a while several oak trees that have almost fully shed their leaves for the season. I recall learning, in a course I took in high school, that the majority of Pennsylvania is covered by Appalachian oak forest, which seemed to me to be strange at the time,
Appalachian
being a word I associate with the south, and
Pennsylvania
with the north.

—Mickey, says Ahearn, and it’s only then that I realize I have been standing still too long.

—You sure you haven’t talked to Truman lately? he says.

I don’t answer right away.

Then I say, Why?

He smiles again, not kindly.

—In the locker room, he says. You were calling his name.

Truman Dawes.

Outside, I pull up his number. I look at my phone for a while, contemplating the name, imagining how many times, in the past decade, I have said it aloud.

Truman Dawes. My most important mentor. Some years, my only friend. Truman, whom I worked alongside for the better part of a decade. Truman, who taught me all that I know about policing: who taught me that respect for a community begets respect; who frowned whenever anyone maligned or insulted his district; who was quick with a word of consolation or a joke when the occasion called for it, even in the middle of an arrest—Truman, whom I miss every day. There is no one whose counsel, at this moment, I need more.


The truth is that I’ve been avoiding him.


I’ve had a certain bad habit ever since I was a child. I duck what I can’t bring myself to acknowledge, turn away from anything that causes me to be ashamed, run away from it rather than addressing it. I am a coward, in this way.

In high school, I had a favorite teacher—a history teacher—Ms. Powell. She was not old, though she seemed so to me at the time. With other students, she was not popular. She did not earn anyone’s admiration
easily or cheaply, like some teachers—I am thinking here of mainly young, white, male teachers who played sports themselves in high school and who joked around with their students as if they were their peers—no. Ms. Powell was different. She was perhaps thirty-five, African-American, the mother of two young children. She wore jeans every day, and she wore glasses, and she generally did not try to be funny, which meant that the students she attracted were more serious, and these students she addressed with real gravity, and for them—for us—she had real ambition. I recall that she gave us her own phone number, her home number, and instructed us to telephone her anytime for extra help. Though I only took her up on this offer one time, I liked knowing that I had the option, that I had a way to reach at least one responsible adult outside of school hours. It soothed me.

Ms. Powell was supposed to teach us two years of AP U.S. History, with an emphasis on the history of Pennsylvania, but she taught a great deal more than that to students who paid attention. In her class I learned the fundamentals of philosophy and debate, and some interesting information about both geology and dendrology—the oak tree being a particular favorite of hers, and now mine, and now Thomas’s—and I also listened to Ms. Powell describe, off script, the imbalances of power in this country that have resulted in institutionalized forms of prejudice—though when she approached this territory, she was delicate, aware always of the groups of Polish and Irish and Italian boys and girls in the back of the classroom who, with a complaint to their parents, could make her life and work more difficult.

So dedicated was I to Ms. Powell and her teaching that there was a time, in fact, when I believed I wanted to follow in her footsteps and become a high school history teacher myself. Even today I wonder about this other life. Thomas has begun to ask questions about how various things got to be the way they are, and I find myself racking my brain, trying to remember what Ms. Powell taught me all those years ago—or, when I can’t, researching Thomas’s questions on my own, and then presenting him with the answers in a way that I hope is engaging. Just as Ms. Powell herself was.

The point of all of this is to say that I was so fond of Ms. Powell and of the material she taught me, so admiring of her, that when I ran into her in a supermarket several years ago, in uniform, I froze.

It had been a very long while since I had seen her. The last she had heard of me, I was applying to colleges.

She was holding a box of cereal over a full shopping cart. Her hair had new gray in it.

She opened her mouth. Took in my attire. (I remembered, in an instant, a special lecture she had devoted to the L.A. riots, and the expression that she wore when explaining their cause.) She hesitated. Then I saw her eyes shift to my name tag,
M. Fitzpatrick
, which seemed to confirm the truth for her.

—Michaela? she said, tentatively. Is that you?

Time slowed.

After a pause, I replied, No.

Like I said: a coward. Unwilling to explain myself, to stand by my own decisions. I had never before been ashamed of being an officer. In that moment, for reasons I find difficult to explain, I was.

Ms. Powell hesitated for a moment, as if deciding what to do. Then she said, My mistake.

But in her voice I heard her disbelief.


In the parking lot, now, remembering that small undignified moment, that small failure of character on my part, I summon my courage, lift my phone once more, and dial Truman.


The phone rings five times before he answers.

—Dawes, he says.

I find, suddenly, that I don’t know how to begin.

—Mick? he says, after a pause.

—Yes.

I have a lump in my throat, and it embarrasses me. I haven’t cried in
years, and certainly not in front of Truman. I open my mouth and a sort of horrible clicking sound comes out. I clear my throat. The feeling passes.

—What’s going on? says Truman.

—Are you busy? I ask.

—No, he says.

—Can I come see you?

—Of course, he says.

He gives me his new address.

I drive toward him.

Here’s how it happened. The attack. It came from nowhere and seemed to be unmotivated, unless the motivation was simply the fact of our uniforms and our work. Seconds before, Truman and I had been facing one another, standing outside of our assigned vehicle, on the sidewalk. In the background, behind Truman, I saw someone approaching. A young man. He was wearing a light jacket that, zipped all the way up, partially obscured his face, and a baseball cap that was pulled down over his brow. It was a chilly day in April, and his attire made sense to me, didn’t cause me any alarm. He was wearing athletic pants, and he had a baseball bat casually slung over one shoulder, as if he was walking home from practice.

I barely glanced at him. I was laughing at something Truman was saying, and Truman was laughing too.

Unswervingly, almost gracefully, the young man swung his metal bat around as he passed Truman, cracking him vigorously across his right kneecap. Truman fell to the ground. Just as quickly, the young man stomped once on the same knee, and then took off at a run.

I believe I shouted,
Hey,
or
Stop,
or
Don’t move.

But my overwhelming sensation was one of being, myself, frozen: my partner was on the ground, writhing in pain, and suddenly my instincts failed me in a way they hadn’t since I was a rookie. I hated seeing him that way: out of control, in agony. He was always in control.

I took one or two faltering steps—first in pursuit of the perpetrator, and then back to Truman, not wanting to leave him unattended.


Go,
Mickey, said Truman, through gritted teeth, and at last I sprinted in the direction of the vanishing man.

He rounded a corner. I followed.

I was met, on the other side, with the barrel of a small pistol—a pocket pistol, a Beretta with a wooden grip—and, beyond them, the gaze of the young man who’d attacked Truman. His face was now fully obscured but for his eyes, which were blue.

—Back the fuck up, said the young man, quietly.

Without hesitation, I complied. I took several steps backward, and then ducked back around the side of the building, breathing hard now.

I looked to my right: Truman on the ground.

I peered around the building: the perpetrator was gone.


I played no part in the young man’s arrest. For an agonizing month, he was on the loose. During that time, Truman underwent the first and second of the several surgeries he has had while on medical leave. When the perpetrator was, eventually, apprehended, it was not due to any usefulness on my part, but rather to the discovery of video footage from a storefront a few blocks away that revealed the face of a known offender.

I was glad to know he was off the street—for a long time, too.

But I took little further comfort in his arrest, because it did nothing to assuage my guilt, my sense of shame. My conviction that, in not acting quickly enough—in retreating, when commanded to by the man in question—I had failed my partner.

I visited Truman only once, in the hospital. I kept my head down. I kept my condolences brief.

I couldn’t look him in the eye.

BOOK: Long Bright River: A Novel
13.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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