Sirens blared nearby, but as James sat, they sounded distant. Distorted. Like a baby’s cry from a monitor. People rushed by, screaming, sobbing, but the world was silent and still. His heart slowed as emotion slipped from his body. All that remained where he sat were functioning organs under worthless skin.
You failed him. The thought rang through his mind, its truth unavoidable. James had failed. Not only on that day, but all those prior. Every decision, every choice, every mindless action – all failures.
Bitter cold grazed James’s shoulder; he shuddered and looked up at a police officer pulling his hand away. “Sorry,” the officer said, rotating his hand as he reviewed the scene. “Poor circulation.” The officer, standing at least 6’4”, towered over James and wore a standard issue black uniform pressed to perfection.
James looked away and asked, “Do we have to do this now?”
“Do what?” the officer replied, his voice steady and calm. “You think I’m going to interrogate you?”
“No.” The officer slowly sat, bracing himself against the pavement as he watched the commotion around him. The bill of his cap cast a shadow over half of his face. “No, sir. Kinda obvious what happened here.”
“Yeah? What happened?”
“A mistake,” the officer replied. “Ain’t nobody’s fault. Things just happen in life sometimes.”
James heard the words but did not respond.
“In the next few months,” the officer continued, “you’ll hear a lot of sob stories. So many that you might get sick of ‘em. But someday those stories are gonna help, I promise.”
James did not react.
“Well,” the officer said as he adjusted his uniform. “Here’s mine. My daughter fell off a tree when she was six. I fell off tons of trees when I was younger, all kids do. But she fell just in that right way, ya know? Hit the ground and that’s all she wrote. I kept thinking afterwards that had I been in the right spot, maybe I coulda caught her.”
“You’re gonna think ‘bout stuff like a lot. But life’s life. Happens once and that’s it. Most of the time at least.”
James turned his head to face the officer. “What do you mean, most of the time?”
The officer grinned. “Welp, I guess sometimes we get a do-over. A second at-bat. What would you give for that, James? What would you give for another chance?”
“Anything,” James replied hypnotically.
“You mean that?” The officer turned and stared at James with eyes that, in the shadow of the cap’s bill, appeared as black as night. “Anything at all?”
“Yes,” James replied without hesitation. “Anything.”
The officer’s smile widened, exposing large, white teeth that shimmered in the sun. “Well, I may be able to help. That’s what I’m here for, anyway. To serve.”
The officer again placed his hand on James’s shoulder; the temperature outside approached 90 degrees, but James trembled uncontrollably as cold rushed through his veins. His breathing became labored, every exhale a fog of frosty air. He closed his eyes hoping to escape the freeze, but the darkness did not help.
Warmth rushed back; James opened his eyes and did not see any police or hear any sirens.
Why would there be police? James thought. The question lingered. Something seemed off. He looked all around but nothing appeared out of place. It was a bright day and his son, Aaron, played on the monkey bars with his sister, Gracie, and a few other kids.
The sound of Aaron’s yelling snapped James out of his daydreaming. James stood from the bench and ran to the playground; before he arrived, Aaron pushed Gracie, causing her fall.
James grabbed his son and pulled him away as Gracie cried. “What are you doing?” James asked as she shook his son.
“What, she started it!” Aaron yelled back. “She took my dinosaur and wouldn’t give it back.”
James squeezed Aaron’s arm and said, “That’s no reason to hit her.”
“Why not? That’s what you do to mom when she doesn’t listen!” Aaron shoved James and pulled away from his grasp.
“Don’t you talk to me like that, you little punk.” The phrase flowed easily from James’s mouth because he heard it countless times in his childhood.
“Don’t you tell me what to do!” Aaron pushed James again; the meek force against James’s waist barely caused him to flinch. But a fire built inside.
Take deep breaths, James thought, like the therapist told you. The breathing only fanned the flame. Aaron stared up at him with a defiant look as the world turned red.
You don’t have to do this. This voice sounded different. It was a gentle, comforting voice that James had not heard before.
You don’t have to do this. James’s muscles relaxed. He unballed his fist. The red faded.
“It’s okay,” James said. “Just go apologize to your sister.”
“No. I’m not going to do it.” Aaron pushed his father for the third time.
The fire returned; it burned away the voice. James lifted his hand and slapped Aaron, knocking him backwards. The kids on the playground inhaled in unison.
“We’re going home and you’re going to get it,” James threatened.
Aaron’s panicked eyes grew wide. He turned and ran towards the street. In James’s periphery, he saw a black Accord approach.
“No!” James screamed, but it did not stop his son or the car.
Bitter cold grazed James’s shoulder; he shuddered and looked up at a police officer pulling his hand away. “Sorry,” the officer said, rotating his hand as he reviewed the scene. “Poor circulation.”
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