i. The boy walked down the dirt path—past the thistles and syringes—to the pond where his friend impaled an earthworm on a rusted fishing hook. The water didn’t gleam because the sun didn’t show down on them and the windless morning left the pond as still as his mother the night before after passing out on the porch.
His friend fiddled with the worm a little, and with determination kept it as symmetrical as he could as he slid its body—squirming not with pain, but with something intangible—further onto the dull metal, then—looking out over the deceased water—cast the line and it hung there, held up by something he thought was keeping an eye out and the boy said, “Hey, Monte.”
Monte turned to look at the boy and smiled and out in the pond somewhere, whatever it was gave up and the sinker plunked and the line pulled until it went still and Monte’s smile diminished. “Hey, Forrest.”
Forrest walked nearer the pond, his own rod and line in hand, and sat down on a stump near the water. Beyond the pond was a cabin and Forrest asked Monte if he thought they could swim to it, and Monte said maybe, but he didn’t have any other clothes to change into when they got back and that dad’d know if he went swimming instead of going to school that day.
“Yeah, you’re probably right.” Forrest put down his tackle, opened it and looked through the lures until he the found one Monte’d seen him catch a handful of crappie with before. “But what if you got back before they got back and you took a shower.”
“Going for crappie, Forrest?” Monte reeled a little, but stopped. Forrest hadn’t responded and when Monte turned nothing remained but the stump and tackle. He looked to the tree line where he’d tied off another pole then continued reeling until he brought the line taut. The shuffle of plastic boxes and tinker of metal hooks drew his attention back to the stump.
“Yeah, I think so.” Forrest tied the lure off on the end of the string and cutting the excess with a pocket knife he’d said he’d gotten for his birthday the year before, though Monte hadn’t been around for the festivities, if there had been any. Monte’s birthday’d been recently and he’d gotten a note written on a munsell-stained, fibrous napkin—the burnt oak of bourbon pulsing from it—with his name scrawled and misspelled on it. Monte folded the paper and placed it in a pocket. His father’d gone to work that morning without even a hello. Monte threw the pint bottle in the recycling and dragged it all out to the curb before his mom could go sift for stragglers. “What about you?”
“Catfish all day’s my game. I think I’m gonna try’n clean one even.”
“Going for it this time, eh?”
“I think so. I think I can do it. Don’t think I’ll puke this time.”
Gusts of wind pushed through the woods into the clearing where the boys played hookie, knocking over the rod Monte’d affixed to a cypress with twine from his sister’s sewing kit. Before he left that morning, he’d given her a note ostensibly from his parents claiming the boy was ill; he desperately needed to visit the physician. He’d given it to Marie with the explicit instructions to deliver it to Ms. Martha in the front office. He’d written these instruction on the back of an envelope and placed it in her backpack front pocket so she’d not forget.
And so when Marie left for the bus, he walked to the back, past the laundry, into the closet his parents called a room and went through her things until he found the twine then he went into the basement retrieved the rods and tackle and snuck out through the back door into the yard, decorated with a 1994 Ford motor, a series of bricks that at one point were intended to be a patio, and a porch swing that had sunk into the pond forming above the septic tank where the mosquitoes bred like rabbits.
“How’d you do it?”
“How’d I do what?”
“Get outta class. Your parents not around?” Forrest looked at his rod then cast it into the pond, the line landing on Monte’s. He walked opposite of Forrest hoping the lines would uncross and save a lot of hassle a little while on, but they didn’t and they both began to reel in.
“Good job, idiot.”
“Hey! I ain’t mean to do that.”
“But you did.”
“Yeah. Yeah.” Forrest reeled in. “So? You just not get on the bus or something?”
“Just not get on the bus? No, no. Gave a note to my Marie.”
Not getting on the bus didn’t even cross Monte’s mind as a reasonable option. What if the school called his parents and when they didn’t answer went over to his house and saw the state of it. Who would they call then? Even more, what if mom answered the door in her underwear, smelling like smoke and alcohol and they looked into the family a little more and what if they talked to Marie? What if Marie told them what it was like. They’d place the two in separate places—away—where he couldn’t take care of her.
Forrest recast, this time leftward, out toward the exhaust of some tractor that’d shown up the first time they went to the pond by themselves. It was a summer month, not long before school started again. They wanted to see what the mysterious pipe belonged to, and Forrest suggested swimming out to it and Monte said no, I don’t think that’s a smart move, Forrest, but the pressure built when Jeremy showed up too and said that he and Monte should go investigate because what if it was a space ship; how cool would that be? Monte looked to Forrest and he shrugged but said nothing else. With the coercion of both boys Monte stripped down to his underwear and waded out into the water and said c’mon guys. He looked back and Jeremy was looking around, then without a word stripped down as well and waded out to meet Monte.
ii. The Man got out of his truck, leaving the door open in case everything went to hell. He stepped around back and opened the hatch on the camper and lowered the tailgate and leaned in to grab a wound length of rope. The drive out there’d not taken as long as he’d thought it’d’ve, but he was still nervous about how long it would take to get somewhere safe after he’d hanged up this John Doe and emasculated and quartered him. It was a bit gruesome, sure, but that’s what they wanted done, so what could you do? Asking questions wasn’t really part of the game. The back door was open, but the screen was closed, meaning it could be locked still, and he’d have to jimmy it or break it.
Suppose there was evidence of forced entry: would that even matter when the John Doe was found cut into four pieces? That would probably be the least of his worries at that point, right? Even if he were caught, they probably wouldn’t even charge him with forced entry, or breaking and entering or whatever it would be called: it’d be moot, right?
The leaves fell to pieces beneath his Red Wings, and he paused to take in the purlieu: the deciduous forest surrounding him, the pond—the light forming a cincture on its surface—, the cabin itself almost animate, grown up along with the few ancient conifers peppering the forest. He stepped around the oblong building, but found no phone lines. There was a cable line and a water line which terminated at the lake. A symmetrical copse a ways off appeared intentional, meant to obscure whatever lie beyond it. The Man sniffed and looked back at the cabin then made his way toward the thicket, but paused again when it occurred to him he hadn’t closed his garage door. He reached for his cell phone to call his ex-wife, but—remembering he’d put his cell phone in the glove box after an argument with a bill collector was cut short by a dropped call—he disregarded the notion and made his forward, toward the trees.
He’d—years earlier—taken out a loan against his car in order to pay the rent for his daughter’s college apartment. The importance of studies trumped struggling to pay bills. His father’d paid for his school allowing him to advance into post-graduate studies and The Man wanted nothing but the best for his daughter. She rebuked him, saying maybe she didn’t need school, that maybe, just maybe she’d move to a farm and work the land, use her hands for once in her life. In refutation, he sat her down in front of a computer and said that’s all good and well, but you can’t do that forever. That’s not a long-term plan. You have to have a long-term plan. The charts showed it all: correlations to higher-income over a career based on advanced degrees acquired. And she told him she didn’t give a shit, and he told her to watch her mouth, and she left the room in a huff.
The ensuing stomping of the girl through the house drew the attention of the Man’s Wife and she peaked into the room and asked him what he’d done now, and he said nothing and she said, uh huh, I’m sure. The Man told his Wife that it was merely a matter of imparting on their daughter the benefits of schooling, and that she was averse as any teenager is at that age, as he had been at that age and his Wife nodded.
There was a night a few months prior to this when she casually mentioned separating, at least, perhaps, temporarily, but it didn’t go past that until much later. But the thought lingered in his head and night after night he’d come to the same conclusion: he’d done everything he’d thought he could do to keep the marriage together short of changing the things about him that made him him. He never asked her to change herself, save for the really annoying habit she had of rubbing her feet together while they lay in bed. There hadn’t been any hints that she’d want to separate before. He thought they got along just fine. He hadn’t quite put the pieces together and he knew that; hell, he hadn’t even taken the pieces out of the box to try to begin, but he provided for his family. That’s what mattered right? His parents hadn’t been terribly happy, but his father provided for the family and they stayed together. He and she weren’t unhappy, though. That’s what counted, right? The preservation of neutrality?
They stepped out of the car and his Wife said that he shouldn’t have taken that turn on that road back there because, look it, now we’re late. The football stadium looked like it could collapse, but there was a plan in place—despite many protests from faculty, staff, students and residents—to tear it down and build an entirely new stadium which would cost the university tens of millions of dollars. The residents saw this as an extravagance considering the town hadn’t been fully rebuilt itself since the storm and the fires set by that lunatic the year before, but hey, at least the university was open and provided income and a bit of tourism in the form of sports, which of course helped the local economy, the Chancellor told the audience during his opening speech, before thanking the friends and family of the graduating class for showing up. The Man and his Wife heard this from gates as they made their way through the stands.
His wife’s dispatcher from the marriage followed shortly thereafter. She told him that she couldn’t be with a man so self-indulgent and so self-centered and now that their daughter had finished with school and off in the city, that now’s a good time as any to leave. The immediacy of her departure left the man chilled to the bone with solitude, as he moved from room to room thinking back on the times they laughed but as he thought he couldn’t conjure anything but a fading nightmare. Then one morning he got a call to head out to a cabin where he’d find—behind the coppice of sycamores—a well-tilled, yet small garden of marijuana plants, perhaps fifty or sixty in toto, and in the garden he’d find himself with the barrel of an unfamiliar rifle against his back and the words of a man telling him to get on his damn knees. The sound of emptying, and an empty bottle of vodka hitting his knee would follow.
iii. A bell rang somewhere behind the Officer as he looked over an affidavit that exuded fallaciousness before leaning back in his chair and taking a drag of an eCig then blowing the resultant vapor downward—under his desk. He glanced over his shoulder for the Captain who—while there—leaned over the desk of the new Communications Specialist, asking her where she got her college degree from, how she liked working in the Parsons County station, how many siblings she had, where her parents lived, and all this leading up to the inevitable “What are you doing tonight?” The Officer coughed and looked back at his desk, then at his feet hoping the vapor’d dissipated.
The Captain stood from the Comms Specialist’s desk and moseyed toward the Officer, taking care to adjust his utility belt and dislodge his underwear from between his cheeks. The Officer palmed the eCig and rotated in his chair. He smiled, but stayed seated. He leaned to check if the Comms Specialist was watching the unfolding, and she wasn’t. What sort of person didn’t watch something like this? If any of the other officers came upon this the number of them leaning against walls would test the building’s structural integrity. They’d be hooting and hollering, putting on their 3D glasses and catching popcorn in their mouths as the derecho came down upon the Officer, it’s winds testing his resolve and his own personal integrity. The Captain looked down at the Officer—eyes unblinking, focused and still—thinking of what to say. What could he even say? The Officer hadn’t broken some rule, some protocol of the Department. He’d merely coughed.
The Officer reached for his phone on the desk and opened an app to show his bank account. He looked up at the Captain and smiled again and then glanced back at his phone. The Captain told him to put that damn thing away and the Officer obliged albeit slowly, deliberately—taking time to keep it parallel to his keyboard, adjacent to a legal manual he’d been going over for a test he had to take that night.
The Captain’s head wavered up and down, almost a nod, and his lips formed a single, ceaseless line across his face, almost up to his bulging ears and the scar he’d gotten while deployed overseas: a story he spoke dismissively of as if it were but a non sequitur and unworthy of mention. The Captain asked the Officer if he thought he was clever and the Officer said yes and the line on the Captain’s face elongated and moved away from his body altogether. The Officer followed the line as it stretched outward to the windows then down the street and to the neighborhood where he’d held the teenage boy in his arms as he bled out from a stabbing by a rival group of kids. He couldn’t even call them gangs they were so small and disorganized. They were more angry-mob-like and disorganized. They were a group of kids who thought themselves thugs, who thought that they could do as they please and he wanted nothing more than to see them counseled and placed in programs to rehabilitate them, not to incarcerate them, but they weren’t.
He’d begun sitting in on classes just to learn a thing or two—after work and when he wasn’t at home working on his novel about a beat cop who encounters a strange light in the sky and begins to develop super powers that have grave consequences—, and shortly thereafter began night classes at the University of Southern Illinois – Forestsound, and while it was a bit of a commute for The Officer, he felt that if he could, he’d like to help sway the way the court system looked at juvenile offenders. What he hadn’t expected were the loans. He’d—at first—paid out his own pocket, scrimping and saving—eating ramen and hotdogs and drinking water when possible as opposed to anything else. He ceased his nighttime activities and soon without word friends he’d had for decades failed to call, but when approached would say things like “haven’t seen you in a while, bub” or “hey, let’s get a drink sometime” though it was clear they hadn’t the faintest inclination to do those things. And so the Officer continued his studies.
“Whaddya got there, Fitzpatrick?” The Captain lifted the affidavit from his desk and glanced it over, giving it an indeterminate hmmph.
The Officer continued to smile as he asked the Captain if he’d offended him in some way and if so that he was deeply apologetic. The Captain opened his mouth, but before he could begin what would likely amount to a tirade the Officer’s phone rang.
“Fitzpatrick here.” The voice on the other end asked him to come to Brief Room C to interview a young boy, age approximately twelve, who reported seeing a man with apparent ballistic trauma stumbling down a hill and falling into a lake.
The Officer hung up the phone and brushed past the Captain. In Brief Room C a young boy sat, looking at his shoes and then at an empty spot in the room. He mouthed something then looked back at his shoes. The Officer looked at him through the caged, bullet-proof window of the door then entered, stenopad and coke in hand, then sat adjacent the boy and slid the coke across the table.
iv. Boys and girls moved through the halls between classes, trying their best to keep their books from plummeting to the ground and scattering across the floor, leaving their personal effects to be scrutinized by the likes of others. The Guidance Counselor kept a weary eye out for running and fighting and public displays of affection which amounted to little more than the occasional peck on the cheek or if they were ballsy a quick smooch to the lips and a hug before the two separated. With the halls clear of miscreants and ne’er-do-wells he retired to the office where he’d talked kids through their future occupations and class schedules for the past twenty-five years and the occasional familial trouble, which gave him opportunity to actually utilize the degrees he’d spent so many years acquiring only to take a job at the school he’d gone to so he could be close to his sister as her health deteriorated.
He opened his email and scanned through yesterday’s emails he hadn’t looked at yet then closed the window and opened Solitaire. The cards moved across the screen at his whim and when he won he sat back to admire the cascading cards filling the window.
There were times when he’d wander the halls hoping to run into a student—any student really—so he could dole out some vague advice the kid wouldn’t think about until later when they were older, or in some pernicious moment they’d think back on those words spoken during an innocuous trip to the bathroom to scribble graffiti about their math teacher. That was the Counselor’s hope. When he’d go home he’d turn on the television and make himself a drink—something complicated and intricate to take his mind off everything. He’d sit in a rocking chair, the old kind his grandma used to sit in as she sipped her bourbon and listened to teleplays while the kids ran in and out of the house screaming and chasing each other. He’d work his way up to reading but would last only minutes. His determination nullified and waning past that, became negative. The light outside in the summer occasionally roused him to journey into the yard and sometimes to pick up some garbage scattered and flung from his neighbor’s yard by the feral cats who’d taken up residence under a nearby bridge over a creek. Then he’d black out and in the morning, in his same clothes, would lay until the last minute, comb his hair and wander, eyes glazed, into school, into his office and sit at his chair in front of a blank computer screen.
It was just in one of these circumstances that a knock came on his door and without a chance to respond vocally or physically it swung open and the Principal asked him if he had a moment, and The Guidance Counselor responded that he was very busy; could he come back another time?
“I don’t think what you’re doing is more important, Emile.”
The Guidance Counselor turned off the CRT monitor and leaned back in his chair.
“How can I help you, Lawrence.” It wasn’t a question, but a demand.
The Principal sat in the chair reserved for students asking which classes they should take given that they’re looking to get into a really good school.
“We just got a call from an Officer Fitzpatrick at the police station. He’s informed us that a student of ours, Monte Johns, you know him, I’m sure. His family. He was skipping school and saw a man murdered and—yes I know—and upon further investigation the police arrested Monte’s father who was apparently involved in some sort of drug trafficking on top of the murder? I’m not sure of the details. His mother is nonresponsive via telephone and there wasn’t an answer at their house, I’m afraid; and well, I think we’d probably pull his sister, Marie. Have you met her? No? Well, we need to pull Marie from class and try to get a hold of their mother, but given the family’s, ahem, issues… maybe we should call DCFS instead. Yes, yes. I know. It’s never the easiest option and I know you have your hands full, Emile, but I really need you to break the news to her. For the moment Monte is being held at the station, so they’re taking care of that and maybe we should just defer to their judgment on what to do with the children. Anyway, that’s what’s going on and I’m hoping perhaps you could talk Marie through this. Could you do that for me, Emile? I’d owe you one.”