— Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
The gaoler opened the cell door and said, “It’s time.” He spoke without pity, without rancor, without any emotion whatsoever.
She sat up, slowly, her back seizing up from a long, sleepless night on a cot that was little more than three wide planks covered by a thin woolen blanket. She mashed the heels of her palms into her eyes and let out a small groan.
“Tears won’t help you now,” the gaoler said.
“I’m not —” She shook her head. It didn’t matter. Let him think what he wanted. It didn’t matter.
She stood with a grunt, her bladder an unpleasant weight in the pit of her belly. Good. That would make things nice and messy.
Appropriate, that — a messy death at the end of a messy life.
The last time she tried to avoid the noose, she claimed to be quick with child, a fiction she sold by pissing herself at every opportunity. Her captors hadn’t known any better. Most men believed the quim to be good for one thing only — their thing — and remained deliberately and blissfully ignorant of the rest, and she used that to her advantage. This time around, the governor, well versed on his infamous guest’s colorful history, asked for a local midwife to offer an opinion. The midwife, a negress with a wide, round face and a better grasp of English than any of the gaolers, came to her cell and poked and prodded and felt around for several minutes before declaring, firmly but dispassionately, that there was no child.
Nevertheless, the governor ordered the execution to take place in secret, just in case the negress was wrong. It was controversy enough to hang a woman; sending an innocent in her belly along for the drop had the potential to spark a riot.
Officially, her death would be ascribed to a sudden, violent fever that struck overnight, so if it was later learned she had indeed been heavy with child, God would take the blame.
Well, why not? She already blamed Him for everything.
The gaoler motioned with his lantern. “Let’s go.”
She took her time ascending the gallows and paused at the top to take in the sun lurking just below the horizon. The edge of the world was deep red. Bloody.
And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowering. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?
From here she could make out the murmur of a restless ocean, as clearly as if she were standing on the shore, letting the chilly springtime water lap at her feet. She inhaled its unique bouquet, a salty tang with a sour undercurrent of low tide. A lone gull brayed its humorless laughter nearby.
Damned birds, always complaining about something.
She smiled. She wanted to cry, but she wouldn’t allow it, no she wouldn’t. She came into the world wailing but damned if she would go out the same way. No, she would stay strong until the very end. She’d stay strong, the way she learned — the way she was taught.
The hangman was such a nondescript fellow. They often were. He could have as easily been a fishmonger or a moneylender. There was no perverse glee in his eyes, no savage grin upon his face — they almost never wore black hoods either, she’d learned — simply a look of bland disinterest. He was utterly businesslike in his work. He gently took her arm, as he might when escorting a lady out of a carriage, and maneuvered her over the trapdoor — dead center, so she wouldn’t crack her skull on the way through. That wouldn’t do. It needed to be a clean drop, and the rope had to be trimmed to the right length so she’d get to experience the agony of strangling to death. Too long a drop and it could snap her neck, granting her an undeserved merciful death, or even wrench her head clean off.
She saw that happen once.
The hangman offered her a hood. She refused.
An old man with a painfully hunched posture approached her, taking care not to set foot on the trapdoor. A humble wooden cross hung around his neck, and he carried a small Bible that looked as old as he. He removed his spectacles, rubbed his eyes with the back of a withered hand, and suppressed a yawn.
“Am I boring you, father?” she said. The jibe was flat and mirthless.
“I —” he began, then dismissed whatever excuse he had in mind with a small shake of his head. He opened the Bible to a bookmarked page and read, but she wasn’t listening. The gulls were waking up now. A flock of them rose into the sky, wheeling up over the false horizon of the city rooftops below, squawking their obnoxious, demanding squawks.
Always complaining about something.
“My child?” the holy man said. She snapped out of her stupor. “I said, if you wish to offer your repentance —”
“I don’t,” she said.
The priest stammered a moment, shook his head again, mumbled an “Amen,” and closed his book. The old woman next to him, a nun by the look of her, crossed herself in silence.
The gaoler stepped forward, his eyes downcast. “Have you anything you’d like to say before we carry out your sentence?” he asked her feet.
“Not to you,” she said.
The gaoler nodded at the hangman. He slipped the noose over her head and cinched it tight, taking care to position the coil of thirteen turns directly behind her left ear. The rope was new, coarse and harsh, and it prickled her unpleasantly. A layer of rust lining the irons around her wrists scraped at her flesh. The cotton shift she’d been wearing since her sentencing clung to her like a second skin of moss. The air turned sour, almost sulfurous — the stench of low tide in full force — and the cool morning air became bitterly cold.
She closed her eyes. Anne appeared in her mind’s eye, her face simultaneously hard and soft, beautiful but fearsome.
And all the terror she’d held at bay came crashing down upon her — not over her imminent fate, but over what might come after. Hers had not been a virtuous life by any means and never before had she pondered the consequences of that life once it reached its end, but now, with the hangman’s noose around her slender throat, the trapdoor quivering beneath her bare feet, and the pull of a lever standing between her and eternity, the weight of her sins smothered her, crushed her, threatened to pull her down into a diabolical pit from which she would never escape.
She wept then, and she bawled out an incoherent prayer that none of the witnesses to this moment could understand — a prayer to whatever God or god or gods might exist that if she’d ever done anything to deserve a dram of mercy, let that be coin enough to buy her one more glimpse of her beloved Anne.
“May God have mercy on your soul,” the priest said.
For a moment, she felt as if she were flying.
Rose jerked upright, a cry caught in her throat.
“Huh? Whuh?” Calvin mumbled. “Whasswrong?”
“Nothing.” Rose fell back into her pillow and let out a shuddering breath. The knot in her chest remained tight. “Dream.”
“Yeah.” She willed herself to breathe the way her therapist taught her, slow and easy. Breathe, in, three, four. Breathe, out, three, four.
“What time is it?” Calvin asked.
Rose opened her eyes. The room was dark. The alarm clock read 4:28 AM. “Time to get up,” she said.
“Got to get ready for work,” Rose said, suddenly wide awake.
Calvin rolled over and hugged his pillow. “Uh-uh. You’ve got to get ready for work.”
“Calvin.” Rose turned on her bedside light. Calvin cracked an eye. “I’ve got to get ready for work.”
The other eye opened. His hand, warm and soft, found hers under the covers.
“Go shower,” he said. “I’ll get the coffee started.”
Rose’s fingers strayed to her belly, to the pale skin right below her navel. She jerked them away as if recoiling from a hot stovetop.
The water was just shy of scalding. She bent over and leaned against the shower wall, using her forearm as a pillow, and let the rain pelt the small of her back. A knot of dull pain loosened, slightly.
Again, unconsciously, she ran her fingertips over the puckered scars — three of them, stitching across her flesh, left to right, not quite in the order in which they were inflicted. The first was directly under her navel, the last above the crest of her hipbone, the second — that was the one that really hurt, not just physically. The doctor said it wouldn’t cause problems. There was a chance she’d experience menopause a little early, but as long as she had one healthy ovary she’d be able to have children, she wouldn’t need estrogen supplements — it wasn’t a big deal.
If you’d lost one of your balls, would you think it wasn’t a big deal? she’d asked him.
Medically speaking, no, he’d said, though not as contritely as she would have liked.
She pulled her hand away and balled it up.
“I’ve got to get ready for work,” Rose said.
“Check you out,” Calvin said.
Rose smiled as a reflex. The uniform felt so foreign on her.
“Kitchen’s a mess.” She picked up off the counter a bottle of Captain Morgan with one swig left in the bottom. The night before, it had started out full.
Calvin took the bottle from her, pulled the cap off, and tossed it toward the sink. It bounced off the edge with a plink and rolled away under the refrigerator. “I’ll take care of it,” he said.
“Cal, don’t,” Rose said in time to prevent him from spiking his coffee.
“Sorry, did you want some?”
“Jesus, Cal, it’s five in the morning.”
“Hair of the dog. Dad’s never-fail hangover cure.”
She took the bottle from him. “Not drinking so much. Rose’s never-fail hangover avoidance technique.”
“We were celebrating you going back to work.”
Rose bit her tongue. Killing a whole bottle felt less celebratory and more like sorrow drowning.
“Coffee me, please,” she said.
Calvin filled Rose’s mug, the one with the smiling cartoon piggy on it, the one he bought her back when she graduated from the academy. She took a sip. Bitter and hot. It hurt to swallow. Just the way she liked it.
“Call me during lunch?” Calvin requested.
“Absolutely. And when I get out for the day.”
“Hey.” Rose smiled. For him, she smiled. “I’ll be okay. I have a whole department watching my back. They’ll take care of me.”
“I know,” Calvin said, convincingly enough.
“It’s okay to be scared for me,” Rose said. “I’m scared too.”
“But you’re still going back.”
“I want to,” she said — an affirmation.
“I want you to,” Calvin said, convincingly enough.
They drank their coffee in silence. Rose poured a second serving into a travel mug, put her hat on, and then stepped back for final inspection.
“Everything on straight?” she asked.
“Fit for duty,” he declared without really looking.
“I’m done at two. I’ll come right home.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“I know.” Calvin took Rose into his arms, held her, breathed her in, and then kissed her. “I love you.”
“I love you,” Rose said. The flutter in her chest subsided.
“Have a good day, sergeant.”
No one in the bakery gave Rose a second glance.
She recognized the plump woman with the obvious bleach job — Mandy? No, not Mandy; her name was Mindy. Like Mork and Mindy, she’d tell customers, who were all honey and sweetie and darlin’ to her. She used to regularly dote on how cute “Sgt. Rosie” was, Too cute to be a cop. How does an adorable thing like you get to be a cop?
By working my ass off and refusing to gracefully accept You can’t at face value, that’s how.
Mindy caught Rose’s eye and gave her a perfunctory friendly smile but didn’t say hello, didn’t call her Sgt. Rosie, didn’t note how adorable she was. She was just another customer coming in at the ass-crack of dawn to grab a breakfast for the road.
Rose bought a blueberry muffin — a Desnuda Bakery and Café World-Famous JUMBO! Muffin — dropped the change in the can marked Waitstaff Retirement Fund (No, Really), and returned to her car, where she ate her breakfast and drank her coffee and stared out the windshield in the general direction of the station, wondering and dreading what sort of welcome awaited her. Her colleagues, especially the ladies working in admin, were big fans of cheap Party City banners. That she could handle. The constant stream of gentle inquiries — How are you doing? You good to go? You need anything? — asked with such care, as if the questions themselves might break her? Not so much.
I’m fine. I’m good to go. All I need is for you to stop asking me how I’m doing and if I’m good to go.
The counselor said she was fine, she was good to go, and what she needed was to get back on the proverbial horse. That would be the only way to know for sure whether she’d fully recovered — fully, with a big asterisk. Post-traumatic stress was a fickle bastard, Dr. Hollingworth said. It could sit and wait and not show its face for days, weeks, months, and then spring out and knock you flat, and over nothing. Dr. Hollingworth said she once treated a vet with three tours in the Middle East under his belt. He returned home with some IED shrapnel in his thigh. Three of his friends returned home in flag-draped boxes. Seven weeks after rejoining the world, seven uneventful weeks later, he lost his shit when a robin took a header into his kitchen window. One sudden BANG! was all it took. He curled into a ball underneath the little table in his wife’s breakfast nook and screamed and wept for two solid hours.
Rose put the uneaten half of her muffin back in its white paper bag and started the car.
She drove past a cruiser sitting in the parking lot of the plaza with the trashy dollar store and the trashier supermarket stocked with nothing but factory second-quality merchandise. Cheery Os. Tomato catchup. Grayish ground beef and jaundiced chicken breasts. How it stayed in business was a mystery for the ages. Rose waved at the cruiser. The silhouette behind the wheel either didn’t notice or couldn’t be bothered to respond in kind. It was a half-hour before shift change, when apathy ran highest among the graveyard gang. A man would have to run naked down the street unloading a shotgun into every storefront window he came across to get a third-shifter’s attention.
Rose shook her head, banishing the thought. More coffee. That’s what she needed — liquid clarity, artificial enthusiasm.
No; what she needed was a single night without that weird damn dream.
Every night. Every single night since it happened. Even when she didn’t remember the dreams, she knew she’d had them. Whenever she flailed awake, gasping for breath, a phantom band of pain tight around her neck, she knew she’d had the dream.
She remembered them more often than not lately. The last few weeks they’d been particularly vivid, to the point where she’d have to talk herself down upon waking, to assure herself that she’d left the dream world behind and returned to reality and not the other way around. The apartment did not really stink of low tide. Those were finches and chickadees chirping outside her window, not seagulls. She was alive. She was alive and lying in her bed next to her boyfriend and not dangling at the end of a hempen rope, piss and shit running down her leg.
She was alive. The doctor said so. She was alive.
(Those six minutes aside.)
She was alive.
The massive concrete block that was the Worcester Police Department eased into view. Rose smiled. The building was still wonderfully, delightfully, comfortingly ugly as fuck.
According to Eva in dispatch, the department know-it-all, the architectural style was called Brutalism. Brutalism embraced concrete and brick and steel forming hard lines and hard corners and modular elements to enhance the sense of practicality and portray the functional purposes of the interior space to outside viewers — whatever the hell that meant. Brutalism was substance over style, function over form, distinction by virtue of being indistinct. Massachusetts had its flirtation with the style a generation or two ago, but it never took hold in any widespread manner — perhaps because such structures stood out like big gray sore thumbs in the land of wooden shingles and decorative shutters and gabled roofs, but they could be found here and there. Boston had its city hall and Government Center, Worcester had its police department.
All of them, ugly as fuck.
Rose pulled into the employee lot, parked, locked her car out of habit, and leaned against the front fender, coffee in one hand and white paper bag in the other.
She waited. She stood there, staring at the main entrance, waiting.
The fickle bastard didn’t show its face.
Time to get back on the horse.
Rose finished securing her belt and bounced on the balls of her feet, feeling the weight on her hips. She touched each piece of equipment, reminding her hands where everything lived. Gun. Collapsible baton. OC spray. Spare magazines. Handcuff pouch. Radio. TASER. A lot of real estate on her belt, all of it occupied.
She closed her locker. She had to slam it so the latch would catch. That hadn’t changed. Nothing had. That surprised her, for some reason. She expected things would have changed since last summer, at least a little, but the station had remained frozen in time, as if for her sake. The tile floors in the hallways were still hazy from wear and age and stubbornly refused to come clean despite regular buffing. The locker room still had that oddly humid floral smell, like a bucket of potpourri indulging in a long, hot shower.
Nothing had changed. Everything was as she left it.
It felt wrong.
Lieutenant Owens leaned against the corner locker, thumbs hooked into a belt half as burdened as Rose’s. “Sergeant,” she said.
Rose smiled. “Morning, LT.”
Owens nodded and returned the smile. “I’m trying not to ask how you’re doing.”
“I appreciate that.”
“Yeah.” She nodded again. “Would you think less of me if I hugged you?”
“I would lose all respect for you.”
Owens had on Rose a good six inches and thirty pounds of muscle that had yet to soften with age. She hugged like a mama bear.
“How are you?”
“You said you weren’t going to ask.”
“I said I was trying.”
“Doctor said I was okay.”
“I know what the doctor said, Rose, I read your psych eval myself. I’m asking you.”
“Guess I’ll find out.”
“That’s a fair answer.” She put on her superior officer face, all business. “You better remember, though, there are people who depend on your head being completely in the game. If I think for one second you’re going to fail them —”
Owens held up a finger, a call for silence. “If I think for one second you’re going to fail them, I will be the first to tell the chief to take you off the streets, for their sake and for yours. Clear?”
“Yes, ma’am. Clear.”
“Right then.” The smile returned. “Time to go meet your adoring fans.”
Everyone on the morning shift was advised not to make a big deal of it, Owens said. Standing order was to treat the sergeant like everything was same-old same-old — no hoopla, no special attention, no acting like she was a broken China doll that had been precariously glued back together, and for Christ’s sake, don’t make jokes. Have some fucking tact.
Rose followed Owens into the ready room. All conversation stopped cold, every face turned to stare in relief, in awe and admiration, in disbelief. Rose could tell who didn’t expect her to return. Bastards probably had a pool going.
“Go on,” she sighed. “Get it out of your system.”
Bobby Atif, no surprise, led the applause, which instantly turned into a standing ovation. Hands grasped Rose’s in welcome, patted her on the back as she crab-walked through the crush of colleagues flagrantly ignoring the lieutenant’s no-hoopla-no-special-attention edict.
“Take your seats, people, we’re burning daylight,” Owens said.
Rose wound up sitting in the dead center of the room — her usual spot. She wondered if they’d left her seat untouched all this time, like a shrine. Or a memorial.
The morning’s rundown was as routine as it could have been. Car fifty-five was out with a blown transmission. Nancé was quote-unquote sick again. Several Newton Square residents woke up yesterday to find their cars had been broken into. If the weather held, roadwork along Front Street would start up again, so traffic during peak hours would be a clusterfuck.
“Booker, you’ll be riding with Gerald this morning,” Owens said. “I’m kidding. I wouldn’t do that to you.”
“Love you too, LT,” Gerald said with a flat laugh that failed to mask his genuine indignation.
“You’re with Aldwin.”
Aldwin flashed Rose a thumbs up. She returned the gesture.
“Any questions? No? All right,” Owens said. “Get out there. Do good.”