On Call: A Day in the Life

Part I – Before Breakfast

1:30 am.

Raina nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard the knocking at her front door. At one in the morning, her first thought was of the drunk guy upstairs playing a prank on his way home from a bar. She didn’t think anything bad. She wasn’t scared, but then the knock came again. Harder. Desperate. More of a thump than a rap, like a rubber mallet striking heavy against the door. In that moment, she let the fear creep in.

Raina closed her laptop, plunged her room into darkness, and waited. Nothing. Suddenly, she was aware of her choice to live off campus and how the sheer, purple fabric over her window blinds did nothing to keep the big bad world out of her room in the middle of the night–something her father warned her about when she picked out the moody boudoir collection at Target.  She told her parents she was safe and there was nothing to worry about. She had roommates, after all. And it’s not like she was living on the south side of Chicago. This was Orlando. She was in Mickey Mouse’s backyard; the happiest place on earth. Still, her mother worried in passive-aggressive silence saying ‘that’s lovely, dear’ too much while her father did what father’s do when their daughters move out on their own; he got street smart and spoke to her in worst case scenarios.

“If someone leaves a flier on your back windshield, that’s a carjacker’s tool of the trade,” he said as he pulled boxes out of the trunk on moving day. “Just drive away, and take it off when you get back home.”

At dinner that night, he chewed thick chunks of Outback Steak and talked about apartment safety. “And if someone knocks on your door after ten, turn off the lights in the hallway, kitchen, and living room,” he said. “This way the guy can’t see you looking through the peephole.” Raina smiled at him and reveled in her own independence.

But now, with the stranger at the door, she did as he cautioned her to do, darting quick in the pitch dark and moving with her back against the wall, just in case. From behind her bedroom door, she grabbed the golf club her father told her to carry to ward off dogs when taking walks, and hesitated in the hallway. One step, two. But when she got to the front door, no one was there. She waited for a second, peered through the peephole, trying to curve her view into the breezeway. No movement. No sound. Her body tingled with adrenaline. She was sufficiently creeped out, drunk neighbor notwithstanding.

With her grip tight on the golf club, she made her way in the dark, back to her bedroom, acutely aware of her surroundings, and the sound of electricity hummed in her ears. She was struck with the idea of a dog again, but her college class schedule didn’t have room for the extra responsibility, and one of her roommates was allergic. The streetlights outside sent soft hues of indigo through her window as she replaced the golf club behind the door, flopped onto her bed, and flipped open the laptop. She smiled at the thought of spidey senses and she rolled her neck to stretch out the fear. That’s when the knock came heavy and fast on her bedroom window.

1:45 am

Allison liked to sleep with the television on. Ever since the birth of her second son, she couldn’t relax without the constant flicker and buzz that late night television provided. Her husband, Nick, didn’t have that problem, able to fall asleep in a tornado and stay dead till morning. So it was their normal routine each night after dinner and a movie on the couch, that Nick stepped outside to the porch to have a nightcap cigarette before a goodnight kiss and shuffle to the master bedroom to go to bed, leaving Allison to her insomnia, camping out on the couch.

Nick didn’t like the arrangement. He felt selfish and needy, but he was too proud to say it. Allison was going through a rough spot, the way she had with their first son, but he knew it was only a matter of time before she found herself again, and was back in bed with him, working on a third. Maybe this time she’d get her girl. Nick fell asleep with that thought in his head; Allison holding up a baby girl, the world a kaleidoscope of pink.

From across the courtyard, the blue glow of Allison’s television called to the man. He slipped a hurried note under the door. The girl with the purple sheets would have to wait. Instead, he made his way across the grass to the promise of open blinds.

Tucked behind some bushes, the man watched Allison as she slept on the couch; her mouth opened slightly, her right arm dangled off the side, and her fingers almost touching the bulky wooden coffee table in the middle of the room. Nothing moved inside the apartment. The man slipped from his spot and moved to the sliding glass door. Piles of cigarette butts filled the ashtray on the porch. He heard the faint murmur of talk-show hosts and noticed that the safety bar was down behind the sliding glass. At first he hesitated. This was too easy. What if there was someone else in the back bedroom? But then he moved to the door handle to check anyway. His right hand left greasy fingerprints on the door as it shushed open in the dark.

3:05 am

The surprise of my dead father matching me stroke for stroke while we swam the English Channel equalled the shock of my cell phone ringing me awake. We were perfectly in sync, my father and I, and he smiled at me through swimming goggles, so the sing-song quality of Christina’s voice was lost on me as my dream faded and the call-out brought me back to the U.S. and dry land.

“By the time the guy left, her husband’s phone had been stolen and she’d been threatened at gunpoint,” she said. My father was pulling ahead of me. There would be no catching him if this continued.

“I’m not hearing anything to do with sex yet,” I said, stifling a yawn.

“That’s where the gun comes in,” she said over the line. “Suck it or I’ll shoot.”

“Of course,” I said. My dreams would have to wait. “Call Sarge and see what he thinks,” I said, knowing the answer. “If you call me back, I’ll be needing a shower before I head out.”

4:25 am

Allison sat stunned in the corner of her dining nook with her hand over her mouth. She wore a soft, yellow hoody with spit up on the shoulder. She looked tired in a way that did nothing to betray the hour. Christina sat with her, reading the sworn statement Allison wrote while the uniforms waited for us to arrive. She handed me the pink carbons when I walked in the door. Sleeps with the television on, open sliding door, unknown black male, dark clothes and hat, penis, gun, all the bells and whistles of fearing for one’s life.

“We’re going to record this, okay Hon?” Christina said. “So you don’t have to write anymore.” Then she opened her notepad and set the digital recorder on the table.

Allison just nodded her understanding. Christina spoke to the recorder documenting the case number, time, and place; all the things the transcriptionists want to hear. “Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but?” she asked Allison.

Allison nodded again, hand still over her mouth. Christina put her hand on Allison’s knee and smiled gently. “I’m going to need to hear you say that, Hon.”

Suddenly, Allison snapped awake and with both hands, smoothed her hair. Christina sat quietly and gave her time to clear her head. Allison raised her eyebrows, blinked and with a small croak, answered with “I swear.”

5:00 am

It took the uniformed police over two hours to give up looking and leave the scene. The man thought it odd that they didn’t put up the yellow crime scene tape. They ran with the dog, had the helicopter up, but nothing more. It was easy then, by the time he made his way back to the complex, to forget about how scared he had been when the first girl cried out after he nudged her awake. How putting his hand in his jacket pocket to point his pointer finger into a gun seemed like the only real option he had left to salvage the situation.  And now he was angry at himself for having tossed the phone away like some scared little punk running from the police. What would his friends back in Philly think? How far had he fallen? The next time, he would leave them sleep, he thought. This way, he would actually have something to show for his efforts.

5:10 am

Kylie slept in the pitch dark. Even after receiving notice from the complex to remove it, her windows were still tin-foiled tight to keep out the bright streetlights outside her window. On the occasion she ever had guests, the boys would complain about not being able to see her in the dark. She liked hearing this. It conjured illicit images in her head. Being pulled at in the dark, the surprising touch of hands and tongues, the curious excitement of blind boys with their first bits of brail.

“Don’t worry,” she’d said, pointing towards the hall, “the SpongeBob night-light in the bathroom should be enough to get you peed and back to bed.”

Kylie missed nights like that. Nights too few and far between these days. She fought hard against these thoughts when she went to sleep.  She was alone. No boys for months. Too much school and work. No time for brail lessons. So it was a surprise to her when the glow of a cell phone hovered in her door way, rousing her from sleep.

“Hello?” she said to the dark figure behind the glow.

“Are you okay?” he responded, as he pocketed the phone, shutting down the light.

The return of sudden darkness tricked Kylie into a dream. She was standing by a river, the trickle of water made her feel safe. Birds whippoorwilled in the distance. Had she been talking in her sleep? She wondered how cold the water was and how far it had travelled to get there, but then the moon was too bright on the surface, blinding her. The cellphone glowed bright again in her room.

“Hello?” she said a second time, now wide awake.

“You want to take your shirt off?” the man said. Just inside her bedroom door, his dark shadow stood tall, somewhere near six feet. He sounded uncertain in his question.

“No,” Kylie said defensively, as she propped herself up in her bed and pulled the sheets to her chest.

Then the man turned and rushed out of her room. She heard the clatter of plastic blinds at the sliding glass door. Instinctively, Kylie reached for her cellphone to call the police, but found it was missing. Spongebob winked at her as she stumbled into the hallway, fumbling in the dark to her roommate’s door to sound the alarm.

5:15 am

“Excuse me,” Christina whispered as she walked back into the living room. She had been outside in her car getting new batteries for her recorder while Nick was showing me his concealed weapons permit. I was chatting with Allison about dogs versus alarms and the conversation jumped back and forth between miniature Glocks and the Smith & Wesson Shield to how the hunting breed of Catahoula Leopard dogs imprint on their owners. Christina gave me a concerned look and cocked her head back towards the front door.

“We’ll be right back,” I said to the couple and followed Christina down the hall. She looked nervous and focussed at the same time. The look every cop gets when the jokes are over and work is about to start.

“They just called out a Code-3. Another occupied burglary,” she said gravely, “in this complex.”

“Any details?” I asked, and grimaced as I heard her recount sliding glass doors and stolen phones. “What about the victim, male or female?”

“The guy asked her to take off her shirt,” she said, moving towards the door. “I’m going to drive around the complex and check for 13-P’s.”

“Sure,” I said. She was still on it. Calling suspicious people 13-P’s, ready to jump into her unmarked, and run a track. A uniformed mind in detective’s clothing. These days, I have to think hard to remember the codes for anything outside of sex crimes, and here she’d listened to her radio while changing her digital recorder’s batteries. I’d have to remember to note this in her training log; comes prepared, and works well without supervision.

Nick and Allison looked shellshocked as I stepped back into the room. He put his arms on her shoulders as her hand went back to covering her mouth. “We heard,” Nick said. “Go,” he said, jumping into protector mode, like we’d worked together for years.

Part II – Breakfast

6:00 am

Kylie sat at the card table in her kitchen and tore thin strips from a Wendy’s napkin. A few feet away, a CSI dusted the blinds and frame of the sliding glass door. Across the complex, the K9 and his  handler moved along dewy grass and dim lit sidewalks looking for someone to bite.

Christina sat next to Kylie and listened to her account of the shadow in the doorway. No, no one locked the sliding door the night before. No, she didn’t recognize the man who spoke to her. No, she wouldn’t be able to identify him later if she saw him. It was dark. She was asleep, just like every one else in her apartment, and the only one who could shed any on the incident lived in a pineapple under the sea.

“I know it was dark, but was there anything about his clothes that stood out to you, or maybe the way he sounded? Even the small things are important.”

Kylie organized the mountain of napkin in front of her. “I think he was wearing a hat.”

“You think or you know?” Christina asked, making sure not to sound angry.

“I just remember white writing on a black cap, but I thought I was dreaming,” Kylie said, shrugging her shoulders. “I’m really not sure.”

“That’s good, Kylie,” Christina said. “I’m sure your weren’t.”

The radio chirped out some coded speech and I tapped Christina on the shoulder.

“Looks like the K9 hit on something,” I said quietly. “Let’s wrap things up.”


When we walked up to the building, about six uniformed deputies milled about the parking spots in front of the corner apartment. The K9 handler rubbed his partners furry head and pulled a yellow tennis ball out from his cargo pocket.

“Who’s a good dog?” he said and bounced the ball high for his dog to snatch out of the air in mid flight. A female deputy stood next to him and tucked her flashlight into the plastic ring on her gun-belt. When she saw the shirts and ties, she jerked her head in the direction of the apartment, and handed me a piece of note pad with two names on it.

“Andre Johnson and Jeffry Daniels,” she said. “Jeffry lives here with his baby mama, and Andre is just visiting.”

“Where are they?” I asked, handing the note to Christina.

“Both are inside,” she said, “and baby mama is none too pleased.”

“Right,” I said, “thanks.” When I walked into their living room, Andre sat on the couch with his head in his hands. One of the female deputies handed me his ID and pointed to the suitcase near the couch and a male deputy in mid search.

“He says he doesn’t live here,” she whispered. Her back was to Andre, and she kept her voice tight, omniscient. “Got kicked out of his brother’s place only last night.”

“Did he give you guys permission to go through his things?”

She looked at me with a smile, her hair pulled back in a tight bun. “Sure. Said he had nothing to hide.”

I wondered how that conversation went down. Dogs barking at the door, a gaggle of cops banging, telling him to open up. That sounds consensual enough. I smiled back and looked at Christina. She nodded at her notepad and the red light of her digital recorder. I read the name on the ID and stepped up to the plate.

“Andre, I’m with the Sheriff’s Office and I need you to know that you don’t have to talk to me,” I said. My voice sounded big, playful almost. I’ve found that dumb ox plays better than smooth talk.

“You want to tell me what’s going on here?” Andre said, keeping his eye on the deputy rifling through his duffle bag. “I don’t even live here.”

“Well, you match the description of a guy we are looking for, and the dog tracked to your place.”

“Yeah,” he said, looking back and forth between me and his increasingly empty duffle. “Well, like I said, this isn’t my place.”

“Sure, but you understand, you’re staying here and this thing just happened.” The deputy was pulling clothes out of the duffle like he was looking for a clean set of pants to wear. He tossed them on the floor and I noticed a black hat, rounded brim, with white lettering on the front. “Have you been outside tonight?” I asked, my eyes steady on his face.

“Just to the Circle K, to get a sub and some chips.”

“What time?” I asked, then changed tack. “Better yet. You have a receipt? You see. We know exactly when this whole thing kicked off, so the sooner I can place you somewheres else, the faster we’ll be outta your hair.”

Andre stayed seated on the couch and held a hand up to the deputy going through his things. “Can I go to the kitchen?”

“Andre, like I said, this is your world. I’m just standing in it.”

Andre stood up from the couch and moved to the plastic bag hanging on the back of the front door. He dug around and came up with a slip of white paper drenched in mayonnaise. “I think this is it,” he said and laid it out on the kitchen counter.

7:00 am

The lobby of the Circle K smelled of disinfectant and bleach. A group of construction workers milled near the coolers, grabbing subs and chips, preparing for the day outside. I walked to the soda fountain to fill my cup with crunchy ice and sent Christina to chat up the clerk for evidence.

“You guys have video here?” she asked.  Out of uniform, Christina’s look doesn’t exactly scream police. Without the bullet proof vest and utility belt full of gear to guide her, the clerk looked warily at this minivan mom cutting in line to ask her questions. Christina smiled and tapped the badge hanging from her neck and the look on the clerk’s face flashed with instant recognition.

“Rita!” the clerk called behind her as she counted change back to a customer. “Cops need to speak to you.” Christina looked over at me and winked, something she had started doing more and more as she got her detective legs. She and I, two cops in the know, always smiling.

Before coming to sex crimes, Christina spent years on the road training newbies. The wink was her way of easing them into the job; a “watch this” attitude of good humor and insight. Who was training who here? I wondered if she knew she was doing it to me. I finished filling my cup with water and went to stand by her side.

Rita opened the door of the office and stuck her head out. She had a stack of cash in one hand and a ream of receipts in the other. Her bleached, blond hair pulled tight on her forehead and poked out a frazzled ponytail. She had her mouth pursed in concentration. Had she been outside, a cigarette would have been living there. She looked busy, and not in the mood for detectives. The face of the neighborhood watch, she was not.

“What can I do for you, dear?” she said to me, already exhausted and ignoring Christina. I smiled and was about to speak when Christina cut me off.

“We need to see your video from this morning.” Christina approached the door and held out a her card for Rita to take, but Rita just smiled and held up her hands.

“You’re going to need to hold on a sec. I got to count this up and get it in the safe,” she said. “Then you two can come in and take a look.”

9:00 am

Christina and I stood in the doorway of Sergeant Maddox’s office as he checked his emails and listened to the events of the morning.

“Black cap with white lettering and black collared jacket,” she said with a smile. “Not the blue sweatsuit he said he was wearing.” Then she gave him the blow by blow of the investigation and how Andre had already disappeared by the time we got the video and went back to re-engage him in conversation.

“So what you’re telling me, Detective, is that you let the bad guy get away. Is that right?” Sarge has a way with words. He likes to tie us up with our own explanations and watch us try to wriggle ourselves free.

“What she’s telling you is that she’s going to be writing a warrant for the apartment and after I eat some breakfast, a bunch of us will be heading out to canvas for witnesses.” I said with a smile. I wanted to sleep sometime today and I knew he would be at this awhile if I didn’t step in. Sarge looked at me with a twinkle in his eyes. I could hear the sound of his voice in my head. C’mon fella, let me have my fun. But the email called to him and he let it go.

“Fine. Call felony and get them up on the stolen phones,” he said with a sigh, on the edge of uninterested, “and let me know when they start to ping.”

10:47 am

Anita Nunez walked four miles of the Cady Way trail every morning with her husband. They talked about their kids, how she never thought she’d miss the dusty littered dawns of Juarez after leaving Mexico two years ago, and how sometimes, when driving with the windows down, the diesel fumes from passing trucks took her home again. So when the glint of sunlight shone off the pieces of Kylie’s phone up ahead on the trail, Anita thought it was just another spot of trash conjuring up images of home and loss. But once she got closer, she realized her mistake, and started picking up the pieces to see if they fit. By the time she got home, she was smiling ear to ear with the treasure that had landed in her lap. I almost felt bad for her when she opened the door to her apartment and found me standing there with a felony team behind me.


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?”


“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.”


“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.