In a Flash. Fiction, that is.

So, I entered a writing competition a couple of weeks ago, but not your normal writing competition where you send them something you have poured your angst into, writing and rewriting, and sending to multiple places for possible publication. This contest, put out by NYCMidnight, sets the parameters for everything; genre, location, a special object to include, and most of all, how much time you get to write it. For this incarnation of Flash Fiction, they gave me 48 hours to write a 1000 word story about Romance in a public library with a soccer ball.  The genre and location must play central roles, but the object can appear and disappear without fanfare. Romance, people. Not my forte. It is odd that the last story I brought you was in a library as well. Anyway, the contest gives each writer two shots at two different stories before you start losing. If all goes well, I will be writing four stories from now til December. If not, you will see another post later with the second story at least. Anyway, here is what I came up with in the first round. Tell me what you think.

 

PICKNEY LOVE 

The first time Jookie’s mother dropped him off at the library alone, he had just turned ten.

“You a man now,” she said. “You can mind yourself while mama works.” She dug into her purse for a lipstick, and the swoosh of automatic doors pulled him into the air-conditioning.  “I’ll be back in an hour. Two, tops,” she said, and then stepped off the curb in the direction of evening traffic.

Jookie spent the next few hours walking through the stacks, pretending he was somewhere else, avoiding the homeless men who kept asking him where his mama was. He tried to stay hidden, but he liked pressing his hands against the wall of books as he walked, listening to the cadence of fingers on spines. That is how he met Althea Boone.

“Pickney,” she said in a rich, Jamaican accent, “Is dere someteen you need?”

“Excuse me?” Jookie said, turning around expecting to see a grandmother ready to scold him.

“You keep thumpin’ dem’ books like a reggae drum, me gwan have to kick you out.”

Jookie stared at Althea’s alabaster skin and blonde hair in confusion. She wore soft pastels that draped over curvy hips, and he marveled at her big, blue eyes, hearing little of what she said. He couldn’t help but stare.

Althea walked up to him, grabbed his shoulders, and gave him a little shake. “You heard me, pickney?” she said with a playful grin.  “You want to stay inside, you treat dem books like your bredren.”

Jookie nodded his head and watched Althea as she walked back into the stacks. She was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

 

“How do you make someone fall in love with you?” Jookie asked his mother the next night as she handed him a cheeseburger. They sat at a corner booth and she constantly tugged at the hem of her black miniskirt.

“You got a girlfriend already?” she asked, folding the wrapper like a placemat in front of her.

“No,” he said. “I just thought you would know, because, you know…”

She blanched at his implication, then recovered, and smiled. “I was always partial to candy, when I was your age,” she said, picking up her cheeseburger. “Just remember, little man, no one is ever gonna love you like I do.”

“You only love me because you have to.” Jookie said under his breath.

“What handsome?” she said, through a mouthful of food.

“Nothing,” he said. “Nevermind.”

 

Jookie didn’t wait this time when his mother left him at the door. He circled the stacks and wandered the halls until he found Althea. She was pushing a cart of returned books in the Young Adult section. Jookie stared at her as she slipped a lemon drop into her mouth, sucking on it as she made her rounds.

 

The next night, they stopped at a bodega so Jookie could eat something before being dropped off. His mother bought a pack of cigarettes and when the clerk’s back was turned, Jookie slipped a bag of lemon drops into his pocket.

 

That night, he followed Althea for two hours until she cornered him in the magazine section and asked him if he wanted a snack.

“What dem call you, pickney?” she asked him as they sat down together.

“Jookie,” he said. “Where you from?”

She pealed an orange and raised a single eyebrow at his question. “What you tink, pickney?”

“You don’t sound white,” he said, taking the orange slice she offered.

“What white sound like?” she asked, staring at his face. “You?” Jookie’s face reddened at her gaze and she smiled. “Me a yardie gyal.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Jamaica, pickney. Born and bred.”

“I thought Jamaicans were black.”

“And yet,” she said, putting her hands up to the heavens, “Me deh yah.” Jookie smiled and turned his head like a puppy trying to figure something out. His stomach did flips and he wanted to speak, but the words wouldn’t come. He slid his hands into his pocket and fingered the lemon drops in their wrapper. Her eyes sparkled, and he almost didn’t hear her speaking. “Maybe if me wore dreadlocks?” she asked.

“No,” he said, blushing again. He didn’t want her to change anything. “Why do you call me pickney?”

“It means child.”

“I’m not a child,” he said, sitting up.

“Sure. Sure,” she said, “You a grown man, far de eye can see.” She put her hand on his. “Pretty soon, you be like all the yardie in the street, making all the gyals swoon.”

Jookie closed his eyes and felt the warmth of her skin spread over him. He could almost taste the fresh lemon on her breath.

“You lie!” she said, startling him out of his reverie. He opened his eyes and found that she was no longer looking at him. “Tell me, me brain gwan fuzzy!”

Jookie turned to see a tall, black man walking up to them. His head was shaved close and he wore a shirt that screamed the word goal across the front with a soccer ball where the O should go.

Althea jumped up from her chair, spilling orange peal across the floor. “You lie!” she said again, her smile a mile wide. She ran to the man and kissed him hard and long. Jookie stood up abruptly and started towards the stairs.

“Jookie, dis here me man, Damon,” she said, turning back to him. “Wait! Where you gwan, pickney?”

 

“You still chasing that girl?” his mother asked when she saw him sitting on the stoop in front of the library.

“Can we just go?” Jookie asked.

“What’s the matter? She not the one for you?”

“I told you, there is no girl,” he said in a huff.

“Ok, handsome,” she said, and she grabbed his hand as they walked down the street.

“Here,” he said, pulling the lemon drops out of his pocket. “I got you these.”

“Where?” she asked, but then let the question die. “Well, aren’t you the little man?”

Murder-suicide, right out of the gate.

Ten and a half hours into my first shift, still in training, and my radio was dying. Every time I pressed my shoulder mic, the radio bonked out and nothing got through. My field training officer reached up and pressed his mic and answered dispatch.

“We’re twenty-six, county. Send it,” he said. The computer blipped with the dispatched call and I studied the screen for the address. “You need to leave it on all night tonight,” he said.

I must have looked confused, so he added, “Your radio. It’s dying because you plugged it back in before it was completely dead, didn’t you?”

“I plugged it in after the nighttime scenarios. It’s been charging all weekend,” I said, over explaining.

“Right. Scenarios are about four hours. These batteries should last you a good fourteen hours. You need to let it die first, otherwise, you’re bonking by three o’clock with two hours still to go.” He wasn’t pissed, just matter of fact. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll head to this house check, and then call it a day. You still have that report to write anyway.” He flipped the computer lid closed and pointed at the windshield. “Now tell me how to get where we need to go.”

Lesson over, now get to work. I tried to remember where the call said to go. He tapped the steering wheel like he was conducting an orchestra. He smiled and turned his head in my direction.

“Baby steps. Okay. Left or right?”

“Right?” I said. He raised an eyebrow. “It’s left, isn’t it?” He flipped the left blinker on with his finger and shook his head.

“Take another look and get us on the right track.”

I turned the computer towards the passenger seat and lifted up the lid. We needed to go east. Which way was east? The beach. Head towards the beach.

“At the next light, take a right, then take 50 towards the beach.”

***

At my girlfriend’s house later that night, still in uniform, I sat in the living room telling her about my day. Her mother sat with us, the two of them smiling ear to ear.

“And I kept thinking someone was drowning. Twenty-six this, and twenty-six that.”

Sam smiled at me, not getting the joke.

“Signal 26 means drowning, but 10-26 means understood. They just kept leaving off the ten and I thought they were drowning.”

Sam and her mother both laughed. I was a cop now. They were proud with me. The rocking chair just fit my gun belt and I rocked back and forth smiling and talking, the radio turned down but still on. I needed to get my radio ear tuned and I needed the battery to die before plugging it back in tonight. Bonking out tomorrow was not an option.

“What did Julie think?” Sam asked. My sister and her daughter had just moved in with me and she couldn’t get enough of the world I had just crossed into. Putting on the gun and badge, I was that much closer to following in my father’s footsteps, and she couldn’t be more proud.

“I came straight here after work,” I said, looking down at my watch. “But now that you mention it, I should probably get home. I have to be up at five tomorrow.”

***

In my truck, I turned up the volume on my shoulder mic and tried to listen to music and work at the same time. I copied a burglary over with, a verbal with all parties on-scene, a traffic stop, and assorted other routine calls. I had finished out the day without screwing up. I was taller, stronger, and tougher than I was only twenty-four hours ago. Things were getting better. And then the radio screamed an alert tone.

“Attention zone 22, copy Signal 5.” Signal 5. Homicide. Why did I have to be off already?

“County 322, go ahead with it.” On new instinct, I turned down the music and leaned my ear to the shoulder mic.

“Copy 322, Signal 5, at 1530 Alameda Drive, apartment 301.” As the address came over the radio, my head started to spin. I lived Alameda Drive, 1530 Alameda Drive, apartment 201. There was no 301. No apartment above mine and my sister. “Caller advises white female and her five-year-old daughter-”

Suddenly, the agency-issued beeper buzzed to life on my belt. I picked it up and recognized the comm center’s number.

“322, caller advised the victim is related to 10-37.” 10-37? 10-37? Agency employee. Me. My foot pressed down on the accelerator as I raced east on the expressway towards my apartment. “322, caller is now advising possible 28A.” Suicide attempt.

***

“I don’t know what to do. I can’t stay here. Not now. Not with his son still in the house.” Julie’s voice stretched across the miles from North Carolina to Florida.

I sat in my apartment dressed in my academy greens just home from training. In one month, I would be graduating, and four months after that and I could live half-price somewhere as a full time deputy. I could afford to pay my child support and still eat. Gas money wouldn’t be an issue anymore because I would have a take home squad car. I was just about to get my life back in order after having my pedestal fall to pieces beneath me after a self-sabataging divorce. I was in a position to help, but was that what she was asking?

“If he doesn’t care about his daughter, I can’t stay here,” she said again.

“You know, if you need a place to go, I suppose you could-”

“Are you serious?” she interrupted.

“Just til you get on your feet. I mean, I don’t see why, I mean if you need a place to go.” I didn’t really know what I was doing. I couldn’t say the words. Part of me loved my privacy. Letting her in would blow that to smithereens. But what else was I supposed to do? She was my sister.

“Of course. Just till I get on my feet, and find a job.” Julie smiled through the phone. “And I can take care of Keaton for you, you know so you can date and all that.”

“Sure,” I said, “We’ll all be dating.” What had I done?

***

I took the steps to my apartment two at a time. The stairwell shook under my weight and I hit the door in seconds. The door was open and I called out to her as soon as I hit the linoleum foyer.

“Julie!” She wasn’t in the place. I ran back outside, down the steps and approached the squad car just pulling up. The deputy smiled at me and waved. We didn’t know each other, but I was in uniform and he thought I was responding to the call, just like he was.

“What apartment does it say?”

“301.”

“There is no 301, and 201 is my apartment. My sister. I’m going to check the pool. She spends a lot of time there.” Before he could respond, I ran off towards the front office and the pool. I looked back and forth as I ran, hoping to see her walking the dogs, or coming back from the pool, a towel around her neck, with her daughter shoving popcorn from the front office in her mouth. Nothing. The pool was empty, the office locked. I made my way back to the apartment, blood pumping hard in my head and my heart beating fast.

When I rounded the corner, a deputy was laughing, and before I could yell at him, I saw Julie on the phone, my niece sitting on the bottom step of the stairwell.

“They were at the neighbor’s place, playing cards. She’s talking to your mom right now.” the deputy said. “Apparently, she’s the one who called it in.”

***

“Did you let the battery die last night?” my FTO said when I met him in the briefing room the next morning. He was sitting in the back with his laptop open, checking his mail.

“Yeah,” I said, sitting down next to him. I tugged at the neck of my bullet-proof vest and read through the pass-on log on the table.

“Did you work on your radio ear?”

I didn’t know how to answer him. I wanted to tell him about the call to my mother, how she thought her phone going through a tunnel was a hang up from my sister and how a routine depression about not finding a job was a cry for help. How going downstairs to play cards with the neighbors is not attempted suicide, let alone murder-suicide. Instead, I flipped through the book of bolos and nodded my head.

“Learned the difference between suicide and murder,” I said, leaving it at that.

“At least there’s no more drownings, right?” he answered, taking the book out of my hands. “What do you think we can get into today?”

He Said, He Said

When we pick him up from his house, he is surprised to see us. Perhaps a little confused. I stand at the front door, my partner out by the street.  His mother answers the door, her hair a frazzled, grey and black mess, pulled tight into a low pony.

“What is it you think he’s done, Detective?” she asks, looking me in the eyes. I meet her gaze. A small gold chain hangs low into her buttoned-up breast with the cross pulling heavy against her neck. I am six again, eyes wide with sympathy telling my father a lie. I know what my strengths are. I can make nice, make things look better than they are. I’ve been doing it my whole life. I do not hesitate.

“As I said on the phone, his DNA came up in this case.”

“Well, he would never,” she says.

“No, of course not.” They never do. “I’m sure there is some explanation, but that means I need to talk to him.” These situations are hairy. One wrong word and she can invoke her son’s right to Miranda, stopping me cold.

“He is only seventeen, you know.”

“Yes ma’am,” I say, without the slightly more arrogant and sarcastic, ‘Which is why I am even discussing this with you.’ Instead, I point to my car under a tree. “We parked down the street like you asked,” I say. “And I won’t put him in handcuffs until I get him to my car.”

She is worried about the neighbors. Of course she is. This is about her after all. What will they think when her son is carted away again? His shoplifting already ruined her reputation on her street, but surely he’s no rapist. Still, she looks back and forth between neighboring houses, perhaps seeing the idea of people inside, even though it is midday and they are probably all at work. And then he is standing behind her in his unlaced sneakers.

“Go then,” she says. “I’m sure he will tell you how all of this is just a big misunderstanding.” She reaches behind her son and guides him through the door. “Go.”

As promised, my partner and I walk beside him until we get to my car and the handcuffs come out.

“Sorry, Justin,” I say, holding them low so he can see. “It’s policy.”

He turns around without saying a word, his hands held close behind his back as if in prayer. Clearly, not his first time.

We talk of school and church and his mother’s fury, and yet, the car ride speaks nothing of the allegation. I get to know him. He gets to avoid the elephant in the car.

“How are you doing in school?” I ask.

“Fine,” he says.

“Got a favorite subject?” my partner, Dave, asks from the back seat.

“Math,” he says, and we speak–if  you count the odd yeah or no coming from his side of the conversation–of decimals and new math and how one and one make two, and I think of this later when I present him with the evidence that brought me to his door; how one in one quintillion makes a boy turn eighteen in jail.

By the time we get to my office, he is no less stressed than when I stood at his front door. I sit him in the room with the chair closest to the door, Dave and I sitting casually as if this is just another conversation. An illusion that he is free to leave and that this truly is a misunderstanding. I ask him if he knows why we are here. He feigns ignorance. I read him his Miranda rights, and he tells me he understands. I ask him about this time last year. He cannot remember. I ask him about his route to school and back again, that certain area where he met that certain boy.

“I’m not gay,” he says, but there has been no mention of sex, no mention of nature versus nurture, no mention of the cross around his mother’s neck and the sin she wants to wash off of him each day. Just a simple question before the accusation, and he remembers everything the way he wants to remember it though he is not old enough to keep track of lie upon lie, not savvy enough to compete with us, in this box of carpeted walls, where everything he says is recorded, watched and spit back at him with smiles and understanding, and the only rules are known by those who brought him here.

“Nobody said that, Justin.” I reassure him. “No one thinks you’re gay.” But of course we do. Or at least trying on the hat for a day. Just to see if it fits.

“I like girls,” he says. “I have sex with them all the time.”

“You have a girlfriend, then?” Dave asks.

And he looks at the floor and then follows the seam of brown carpet up the wall and to the ceiling.

“Not right now, but a friend.”

“With benefits, I suppose,” I finish, and he nods in agreement. “But the DNA,” I counter. “What of that?”

Age seventeen or seventy-one, it takes time to Out someone. A boy is still a boy is still a boy until he can finally say the words, which Justin cannot. Only a rationalization and denial to himself. The room enjoys many conversations of denial. It wasn’t me. It must have been planted. I know how you guys operate. I watch CSI, you know. I would never, he would never, we would never. Never. Never. Never. Until this one time. She wanted it, he wanted it, I wanted it, we wanted it. They tell me the moon is the sun and the sun is the moon, and we sit in this room until it finally sounds ridiculous, even to them.

“He told me his name was Andy,” Justin says. “He said he did it all the time.”

“He said that?”

“Well, I mean, not in those words, but I could tell.” Justin squirms in his seat. “What are you going to tell my mom?” he asks.

“How did it happen?”

“How did what happen?”

“The sex.”

“It wasn’t even sex. Not-” he says, trying to explain his side. “Not for real anyways.” And we go round and round like children singing Old MacDonald; here a lie, there a lie, everywhere a lie, lie. But his denial does not mesh with science and logical reasoning, and so it all comes out in small little admissions, bit by bit.

“It was only oral, because I knew he was younger than he said.”

“How?”

“Well, I figured, you know. He didn’t know what to do.”

“Maybe that’s why he said you were forcing him.”

“I didn’t force him to do anything,” Justin says. “I didn’t even use my dick.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“You know, because he was so young. So I used my thumb instead.  So it wouldn’t hurt.”

That is the way of these interviews. No phone books. No bright lights. People really do want to tell the truth. They only lie because they are scared. I want to thank him. For being earnest. For all of the detail. Too much not to be the truth. I tell him that.

Of course, none of it matters. The truth, I mean. I can’t help him out of this. No matter how much I want to. The law is the law. I tell him how fourteen is too young to even ask about sex.

“But I told you. It wasn’t sex.”

It is here where I lay all the cards on the table. He remembers the who, the when, the how, and even though his seventeen-year-old brain cannot grasp it, after all the ins and outs, the backs from front, what he has told me is indeed against the law.  The upside down, while now right side up, is still upside down.

“What are you going to tell my mom?” he asks again, tears running down his face. He is ashamed. Not of the sex, but of the boy, of himself, of his nature. He is a child, afraid of ripping off a Band-Aid for fear of the pain it will cause. It is once again ancient Greece, a young Socrates meeting up with other younger boys willing to learn. How does the rap song go? Willing to get in the driver’s seat, willing to turn? Besides, Justin still likes girls. He just hasn’t the game to play with them.

“She is going to find out eventually, Justin. He’s saying you forced him.”

“But I really didn’t.”

“Then why would he say you did?”

“I don’t know,” he says, leaning into his seat. “ But it’s what I would do.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know, if someone saw, or he started to feel bad about it, and he didn’t want anyone to know. I would say it was forced too.” Justin bends over crying now. “Even if it wasn’t. Because it wasn’t. I didn’t hurt him. He just said he had to go and he left.”

And my job isn’t so great anymore. The tools I have to break through the lies don’t feel as good. What has happened when I feel sorrier for the guilty than I do for the innocent, when they both start looking the same?

“I guess that makes sense, Justin,” I say patting him on the back. “But I already tried to get him to tell me the truth and he isn’t budging.”

Justin sits up straight again. His tears wiped dry. He asks me what happens next and I tell him about juvenile rules. The twenty-one days in jail. The sex crime segregation inside. How he needs to listen to the guards when they tell him to do something.

“But first, I need to call your mom,” I say, standing up, his head tilting up to look at me and my partner as we move towards the door. “Tell her what’s happening.”

“Right now? You’re going to tell her right now?” he asks. His voice echoes fear. Dave keeps walking towards the monitoring room to shut off the video.

“It’s policy, remember. You’re seventeen.” And in truth, I do not want to make that phone call. I know what I’ll hear. Not her son. What had she done wrong? As if any of it had anything to do with her. Why was God punishing her? And what can I say to her that won’t turn into a religious debate? Who was she to judge?  Do I need Jesus to come down and ask her to cast that first stone to make her understand that she is no better than him, or me for that matter, setting kids up to fail in a system that is flawed. Justin is seventeen, and now facing the same amount of years in jail. If not more. He doesn’t need a mother to judge him when there are so many others just waiting in the wings.

I know the system. Close enough to eighteen, he will be direct filed, kicked up to adult court. What has he done, really? In the eyes of all those who have no idea what it is really like down here, in this carpeted confessional? They have no idea what real life is. They don’t get to listen to all the lies from both sides. What gets said in this room, with the victims, with the suspects, everyone, isn’t really what it sounds like even though it is exactly what it sounds like. The boys were just playing tug of war in the woods. That’s sounds harmless enough. Kids will be kids. Part of me wants to sit with him. Tell him it will be okay. I spend so much of my days almost preaching to my suspects about telling the truth and now here I am, wanting to tell him a lie.

Justin lowers his head again, wiping tears with a flat hand against his cheek. Trying to man up when his world is falling apart around him. “Can you do me a favor, Detective?”

We don’t do favors. Miranda doesn’t allow for it. A defense attorney would love for me to try. Extend my hand in real friendship. Give him something for something. Quid, pro, quo is a very slippery slope in my world.

My hand is on the doorknob. He wants time to compose himself. A drink of water. A trip to the bathroom, perhaps. I think of my own son, still too little, still too, everything. “What’s that, Justin?”

He turns his face up to mine, dry now, but still not ready for what’s next. “Can you tell my mom it was a girl?”

______________________________________________________________________________________
He Said, He Said was originally published in J Journal magazine last fall. See the link on the right side of my home page to get a subscription.