The locker room stank of disinfectant and overchlorinated water. Between two rows of blue metal lockers, Ed sat on a long wooden bench with his head in his hands. His uniform shirt was unbuttoned and untucked. A locker was open in front of him.
“You alright buddy?”
Ed looked up. Sam, a fellow trooper, stared at him from the end of the row. Sam’s uniform was neat, perfect, as usual. Ed stood and stripped off his shirt.
“I just got suspended,” he told Sam flatly.
The sound of a locker closing echoed from a couple rows away. While Ed continued undressing, the locker room door squeaked open and then slowly whined shut.
“Because of that kid?” Sam asked.
Ed nodded, stuffing his disheveled garments into his black gym bag.
“Yup. ‘Cause of the kid.” He slammed the locker door shut, and it bounced back open from the force. “‘Cause of some god-damned kid with—” he slammed the locker door shut again “—fake license plates—” and once more it bounced open “—and a lead foot.”
Ed slammed the locker door shut a third time, this time pressing his palm against it to keep it closed.
“What’d Captain say?”
“He said I was out of my patrol. That I facilitated a dangerous pursuit for no reason, inflicting a couple thousand dollars worth of damage to a state vehicle. He said I fired a shot and didn’t call for backup.”
Ed opened the locker again. He retrieved a clean t-shirt and slipped it over his head.
“So why were you out of your patrol?”
“I had a domestic call near Pittsburg. So when I’m done, I decide get some food. There aren’t too many places open that late, so I had to drive a bit. Suddenly, I see this car barreling down the road, so I pull it over, run the plates. When I see they’re fake, I get out and tell the driver to step out of the car.”
“But you didn’t call for backup?”
Ed snagged a pair of jeans from the locker and pulled them on.
“I did, but there’s no record of it.”
“What do you mean there’s no record?”
“There’s no record. Dispatch didn’t log it. Nobody remembers the call.”
“What about your camera?”
Ed grabbed a blue and white striped shirt from the locker and started buttoning it up.
“The video hasn’t been downloaded yet,” he said. “Captain said they’ll look at it during the investigation.”
“And how long will that take?”
Ed shrugged. He started taking items out of his locker and cramming them into his bag. He found an envelope.
“Remember this?” he asked, holding it up for Sam to see.
“Is that your commendation?”
Ed took a piece of paper from the envelop and opened it.
“‘For outstanding service and dedication to the citizens of New Hampshire,’” he read. “Six months ago I got this. Now they’re suspending me.”
“That’s messed up,” Sam said.
Ed refolded the paper, put it back in the envelope, then flipped the envelope into his bag. He continued clearing out his locker.
“So you’re suspended until the investigation’s over?” Sam asked.
“You still getting paid?”
“That’s good. You should do something, go somewhere, take your mind off things.”
“I can’t leave the state.”
Ed peered into his locker. It was empty. He shut the door and zipped his gym bag.
“You could go to Freedom Plot,” Sam said and chuckled.
“Why would I do that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe you’ll run into that kid. Do you remember what he looks like?”
Ed looked at Sam silently for a few moments.
“If I found that kid I’d probably beat the crap out of him. I don’t think that’d help my case any.”
“Hey, it’s the freest society in the world, you know,” Sam said. “You can do whatever you want and nobody will do anything about it.”
Ed picked up his bag. On his way past Sam, his friend placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Give me a call if you need anything, okay?”
Ed left the station and tossed his bag in the trunk of his Grand Am. He drove away wondering what to do next. Time had never been his best friend. He liked working at night because it beat lying awake in bed. During the day, when he wasn’t sleeping he would go to the gym, work on the house, spend the afternoon at a nearby sports bar when there were never any good games on. He had tried his hand at fishing once, but that was worse than staring at a dark ceiling.
On a whim, he drove to the apartment of a young woman whom he had once caught doing eighty in a forty-five. She had suggested a way that he might let her go with only a warning, and it turned out to be more than a one-time thing. He parked in a visitor’s spot and walked into her building. At her door, he knocked his usual three loud raps. A half-minute later he heard the dead bolt being withdrawn. The door opened slightly, the chain lock still engaged, and the young woman looked out at him with eyes ablaze.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded.
“I wanted to see you.”
“You can’t just show up,” she told him. “You’re supposed to text me first.”
“I had some time,” Ed said. “Let me in.”
“No. My boyfriend’s gonna be home in a little while.”
They stared at each other. For a fleeting moment, Ed considered forcing his way through. The chain wouldn’t stop him and the girl weighed all of a hundred ten. He could easily push his way in. Instead, he took a deep breath and turned, walking away. He heard the door shut behind him and the bolt slide back into place. Before he reached his car, his phone vibrated. He took it out and saw a text from the woman he had just left.
stay da fuk away or ill call the cops, it read.
He deleted it.
He didn’t want to go home so he stopped at little diner and ate an early lunch. When he couldn’t stand being there any longer, he drove to a hardware store. He needed supplies to replace the railing on the basement stairs. When he got home, however, he just dumped the materials in the garage, grabbed a few beers from the fridge and sat in the backyard. He drank and dozed a bit. His wife came home a little after five with the kids.
“I thought you were working tonight,” she said.
“I traded shifts,” he lied.
She noticed the bottles next to him.
“You could’ve started on that railing,” she said and went into the house.
“I’ll do it tomorrow.”
Dinner was the usual affair of kids chattering while chewing, each one trying to overtalk the other. Ed participated on autopilot, eating his chicken and rice and green beans mechanically.
“I’m going to give Eddie a bath,” his wife told him when dinner seemed to be over. “Clean this up.”
Ed took his time storing the leftovers and loading the dishwasher. When the dishes were all merrily being cleansed, he trundled into the living room and turned on the television. Some cop show was on, and he watched it, shaking his head at the general ignorance of the show’s supposed audience and how it could believe this was what cops really acted like.
He turned his head and saw his wife. She was holding their son, who was wrapped in a big fluffy green towel, and staring daggers at him.
“She can’t watch this! She’s too young!”
His wife looked toward a chair on the opposite end of the room where their daughter was sitting, her eyes wide.
“I didn’t know she was there,” Ed complained.
But his wife left. Ed handed his daughter the remote control.
“Here, watch some cartoons or something,” he told her.
He went upstairs and into the bedroom, where he turned on that TV, took his pants off and laid on the bed. Some time later, his wife came in and turned the TV off. She undressed, slipped on a nightgown and climbed into bed. Ed scooted over and kissed her. She pulled away from him.
“You still smell like beer. Go brush your teeth.”
The suspended trooper looked at his wife silently, then he got up and went into the bathroom. He turned the water on, took a big swig of mouthwash and sloshed it around a bit and spit it in the sink.
Back in the bedroom, the lights were out. He crawled on the bed to his wife.
“I’m back,” he said enticingly.
“Not tonight,” she told him. “I have to get up early tomorrow. I’m chaperoning Eddie’s trip to the museum.”
“Come on.” He grinned at her. “I promise I’ll be quick.”
“No,” she said and turned away.
Ed flopped back to his own side of the bed and pulled the covers roughly over him. Not long after, he heard the heavy sound of his wife’s breathing. Ed laid wide awake, staring at the ceiling, trying not to think about how angry, bored and trivial he felt.
His thoughts ambled to previous night, replaying it over and over. He had stopped the car and ran the plates. When the plates came back as unregistered, he had called for back up — hadn’t he? Dammit, now he was confused. Even if he hadn’t called it in then, he definitely followed protocol by ordering the kid to step out of the vehicle with his hands raised. When the kid shifted into gear, Ed had stepped away from the vehicle to keep clear. He would’ve shot the car’s tires, but he stepped on a stick or a rock or something, and he failed to keep his footing on the slick asphalt. By the time he had recovered and managed to balance on one knee, the car was turning a curve. He had fired, but the bullet had missed.
Maybe that was his mistake. Every bullet had to be accounted for, every pull of the trigger justified. The car was too far away at that point, and he probably should’ve just let it go. In the dark, stormy night it had seemed so clear, so obvious. Earlier today, the Captain chastised him for not calling in the shot fired, but Ed swore he had. Hadn’t he? Why was there no record of his calls to dispatch? Was he going crazy?
When Ed chased the kid, he had focused on only one thing: bumping the little bastard off the road. The trooper had no doubts then, and he still had none now, that the kid had been up to something illegal. Chasing him was the right thing to do. But now Ed was lying here, suspended for being reckless and negligent. It wasn’t right.
Ed flung the covers off himself and stood. His wife stirred.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Can’t sleep,” he said and stalked out the room.
He pounded down the stairs in the dark, half expecting to step on some toy and tumble to his death, half hoping he did. The air conditioner kicked on as he reached the bottom, and a thought about the meaninglessness of incidental actions flitted across his mind. The problem is, he thought, you never know what’s going to be meaningless and what isn’t. Maybe the A/C unit will blow up and his house will catch fire and his whole family will die horribly in a tragic conflagration. So be it. He went to the kitchen and grabbed a beer from the fridge, then he settled into his chair in the living room and turned the TV on.
He watched a late-night “reality” show where some idiot someplace a lot flatter and sunnier than New Hampshire went on three blind dates and then had to choose the woman he liked best. Each of the three women made out with the guy after about five minutes, and at the end the two he didn’t pick ranted about how much they didn’t like the guy anyway. But the guy made Ed even madder, because in the end the jackass said he probably wasn’t even going to call the one he picked anyway. Ed wanted to drive to wherever the kid was and beat the crap out of him.
Which reminded Ed again about the other kid he wanted to beat. At least he knew where that kid was. Maybe Sam was right, maybe he should drive to Freedom Plot. It couldn’t be that hard to track the kid down. Hell, it’s not like he had anything else to do around here. The railing could wait.
And if he did find the kid? Well, maybe he’d end up not doing anything. Maybe.