Mark watched the car ahead of him swerve. It wasn’t exaggerated, just a little too much to be normal. His trained eye recognized the movement. He could feel the thickness radiating from the vehicle as if it were the car that was drunk. Even the blink of the turn signal seemed sluggish. Whoever was driving had to really be looped not to notice he was behind them. They were the only two vehicles on the county road – the widely spaced houses set back off against the hills were the only light. The occupant of the car was probably on his way home, near home, but it didn’t matter. He methodically shut the inner doors of sympathy. This one was going to jail.
He hit his lights and siren. The car appeared to hesitate before it slowed, and pulled to the side of the road. “Good choice,” he muttered, easing behind it, radioing the plate in as he watched the silhouette of the driver for dangerous gestures – the reaching to the right, any sign he might be walking into death.
The dispatcher gave the description of the vehicle before him – “blue Chevy S10, Owner: Tom Bracken, white male. DOB 12/9/39. Mark frowned. The name rang a bell but dispatch said there were no priors or outstanding warrants.
He opened his door and stepped out, frogs in a pond calling to the Michigan night. They wouldn’t be calling much longer. The fall air had a bite to it. He could see the man’s hands on the steering wheel though it didn’t make him feel better. Mark had learned to trust his intuition and it was whispering he should know Tom Bracken – know the name.
The truck door opened and the man got out holding his hands in plain view. It was another smart move because, unless someone was hidden in the truck, the situation had improved considerably. There was still room for sudden death but the odds were decreasing.
“I need to see your driver’s license and registration,”
The man held them out, weaving slightly. “I’m drunk. I shouldn’t be driving. You were right to pull me over.”
Mark took the offered license and registration, reading them. The man looked every bit his sixty-one years; steel gray hair, thin face with a long jaw. Wrinkles were etched deeply into his cheeks and grooved into his brow. His clothes looked like they’d once belong to a heavier person; suit jacket flapping loosely, pants baggy at the crotch.
If it had been for any other offense, he would have let the man go with a warning. It helped encourage cooperation and people were much more law abiding, it seemed, once they admitted the fault themselves. Drunk driving was another matter. His ex-partner and ex-friend Brian hadn’t arrested Leah, Mark’s sister. It took Brian a year to confess to Mark he’d let Leah go on to kill someone and instead of small town jail time and a ticket, she was serving ten years for manslaughter. Mark had spent that year helping Mrs. Cranton deal with the loss of her husband. Leah had not done well in prison. Brian had made a stupid decision and ruined all their lives because of it. Law was law and the older Mark got, the more he leaned on that knowledge. Mark sighed heavily. No, he didn’t let much of anything go anymore. His wife reminded him of it often.
“Please lock your car, sir. I’ll have to take you in.”
The man nodded and did as he was told. Mark read him his rights and handcuffed him, helping him into the back of the cruiser. Beneath the suit, the man felt fragile, as light and breakable as a Christmas ornament. Mark preferred the belligerent ones. With them, there was some satisfaction in knowing the next two years would be classes and fines and court appearances. The nice, cooperative ones were tougher but they’d put themselves in the situation though and that helped him do his job.
He radioed dispatch for a tow truck. They would have to wait until it arrived. Somehow, police ended up being liable if anything happened to the offender’s car. He opened his clipboard and folded the protecting cardboard under a new violation form.
“I’m truly sorry,” there was a quaver in the voice that drifted between the wires of the cage separating the front and back seat. “I, of all people, should know better.”
“How’s that, sir?” Mark was tired tonight, having a hard time concentrating on the answers to the blanks on the form. Maybe he was getting a cold.
“Driving drunk was stupid of me. I’ve never done it before. Perhaps I believe I should be punished.”
The sympathy ploy was nearly as good as belligerence. Too many people had real problems for Mark to feel sorry for the self-induced ones.
The old man’s voice had a singsong mesmerizing quality. The violation form blurred a bit. It had begun to rain and Mark could hear the rhythmic bumps of it on the roof, the windshield.
“Kelly always took risks. From the time he was old enough to toddle we had to watch him. My wife threatened to put him in a harness before he could barely walk…” the man’s voice wove into the fog of mind and heaviness. Even as he fell into it, he wondered if the reason the man’s name was familiar was he was a writer, or a magician. “He got his love of life from her…all the fire and electricity…”
He felt himself drawn into living the man’s words…
“She said ‘he would have walked right off the dock!’ her hands on her hips. She was so tiny it was hard to believe how much life she could hold. She radiated it. She had the most beautiful hair…it floated over her shoulders so softly that her ice blue eyes were a shock. My heart lurched every time I looked at her.
“I had to laugh. ‘He takes after you, honey. No fear.’
“Shelia just exclaimed, ‘it’s not funny!’ She dimpled though. ‘He’s going to kill himself before he can even ride a bike!’
“It was a worry. Kelly seemed to have an inner magnet when it came to anything dangerous. He also had a tendency to laugh when something did hurt him. Oh, there would be the initial shock, a few tears, and then he’d shake his head and admire the bruises or bleeding places. Shelia called him her little warrior.
“The adventures began with the entrance into kindergarten. He wanted to do it all – every sport; football, soccer, wrestling. He tried basketball and swimming but they were too tame. He joined Cub Scouts because they would eventually teach him to climb mountains.
“He began doing that at thirteen. The first time, we got nothing done all the time Kelly was gone. It was a weekend trip and it was one of the longest of our lives. We tried to act normal; I mowed the lawn, Shelia pretended she was weeding.
“One trip around the lawn and I would think, hadn’t that been the phone I’d heard? I’d stop; look at Shelia who was frowning intently at nothing in the distance. A little fairy dissatisfied with her magic woods. I would kill the lawn mower engine and listen. Shelia would look at me, I’d shrug and we’d take a coffee break to worry together.
“We acted nonchalant Sunday when Kelly came bursting in all granite, carabineers and rope. I absorbed it – knowing our son would take us places we would never have the guts to go. Until the skydiving. Somehow Kelly talked Shelia into trying a tandem jump with professionals. I worked that weekend to keep busy. When Shelia and Kelly came home I had to be nonchalant alone. I was relieved at Shelia’s ‘never again’ unsurprised by Kelly’s ‘next time’.
“Fourteen was a solo dive and flying lessons.
“For a short while it all stopped, frozen. A pain Kelly couldn’t laugh away, a fear that couldn’t be scaled or jumped or conquered. This time it was his mother who showed us courage; chemotherapy, radiation, and finally the last resort of morphine. We watched her take abuse the human body never was meant to.
“Then it was just the two of us with unclimbed mountains of emotion that frightened us both. Kelly tried to run down a different path toward a new sort of danger – long hair, earrings, and late nights. I finally found courage of my own – barring the door with my body while we screamed obscenities at each other, pain pouring out. He could have killed me in that moment, and I was willing to die to stop him. Somehow, we found each other and shared our pain, healing in the process. So close. It had been so very close…
“He got back on track. Clean adventure returning. The hair stayed longer but the earrings disappeared and being rested was vital for good landings, body strength needed to climb the next mountain.
“I still waited anxiously for his return from every adventure but not out of fear. I waited to listen, to absorb the tales of flights above eagles, the brief moment when the chute didn’t open, what the bottom of the ocean looks like. There was always the invitation; ‘come with me, Dad,’ I couldn’t. I was the breadwinner. Risks were not allowed.
“So I told myself. Deep down I knew Kelly’s spirit came from his mother. We healed though each of us carried an empty space for the person that had been.
“He got straight A’s, was on the student body and had college plans. But until then there was show jumping horses, flying, scuba diving, a job to help pay for it all. The job, of course, was wildland fire fighting; rappelling out of helicopters, even in that he had to push the envelope.
“I’d learned to live with the expectation of a phone call; the horse fell, the chute didn’t open, air cut off – though a part of me also started to trust it wasn’t nearly so dangerous as I’d thought because Kelly was very good at everything he did. He didn’t just learn things; he absorbed them through his pores. He became part of what he did, teaching me that superficiality is where most of the real danger is.
“I taught Kelly how to ride a bicycle myself. I’d known before I’d taken the training wheels off (those had lasted a day!) that Kelly wouldn’t need the normal encouragement to try it on his own. Bikes were a tame thing – what was a scraped knee to a young boy already planning to climb mountains. Every few years the bike was upgraded until it became Kelly’s main mode of travel – keep in shape and travel at the same time. Bikes weren’t dangerous. I never even gave it a thought.
“The car didn’t stop for the light…Kelly was pedaling through the intersection…he went over the top of the car without ever touching it to land broken and bleeding in the street; helmet split open, neck and back broken.
“Life stopped again. Hours, days, weeks sitting beside Kelly’s bed at the hospital, listening to the beep of the monitors, watching the machines that made sure Kelly’s body functioned. They breathed for him, kept his heart beating, fed him. The body was there. Kelly was gone. He’d left the moment he struck the asphalt. Doctor Davidson, Kelly’s doctor, was as devastated as if Kelly were his own. He never lied, never given false hope. Kelly was gone. The only thing left were the obscure rhythms which might someday take over basic functions but no brain waves to indicate thought, to give any hint Kelly would ever open his eyes.
“For a long time I clung to the hope that the Davidson was wrong – as long as Kelly’s body could recover enough to be independent, maybe what was Kelly would follow. I told myself Davidson didn’t know Kelly’s spirit. It did rally. Kelly began to breathe on his own, and then quit. Slowly his body wasted and tried to curl so I got another doctor but he said what they all did, that an institution would be best.
“Another doctor. Home care, maybe. Very expensive.
“Bad nurses, Kelly dirty and unshaven. Good nurses, Kelly clean and muscles more flexible.
“Once or twice in a life time there is a moment where a stranger takes over, gives us strength we would never have on our own. A shy woman takes on a bear of a man and wins, a country boy takes over and leads his troops to safety, a father will put drugs in his son’s IV to end a life that isn’t. I thought it was my turn to have courage. They said in the courtroom he would have recovered,”
The sound of rain returned, the flash of lights of the tow truck hooking onto Tom Bracken’s truck. Mark’s leg was numb from the angle he had it at and once again the violation form appeared with its little blanks.
“They said he would have led a normal life,”
No wonder the name sounded familiar. Bracken had been on trail for taking the life of his son. It had been all over the news for a few weeks. Mark remembered how he’d felt when they’d acquitted the man; uncertain that justice had been done but not positive it hadn’t.
“It was a year ago tonight. The house was so quiet, Kelly’s flight bag by the door. I couldn’t stay there anymore. He was a vegetable. Doctor Davidson knew it. I knew it,” the voice was filled with question. “The doctor at the trail had never even seen Kelly. He was quoting statistics. He couldn’t have known, could he? Could he?” The voice whispered off. “You try to do good and horror comes of it. People who know nothing get to decide if you were right or not.”
The pain in Tom Bracken’s voice forced Mark to turn and look through the cage – Bracken’s face lit alternately red and blue from the light of the tow truck, streaked with tears, a sadness so deep it sunk to the marrow of his soul and echoed against what he hid there.
A lawyer had said it was murder. The jury had finally decided otherwise but not before the media had destroyed what was left of Bracken’s life.
“I still have to take you in,” Mark’s voice sounded hard in the confines of the car. His whole being ached for this man and he sounded like he was bored.
“Of course you do. Maybe it’s what I know I deserve.”
That was it. Tom Bracken had nothing more to say. The finality of it was like a blow; a moment passing which could never be reclaimed.
“No.” Mark started the cruiser as Bracken’s truck was towed into traffic. He glanced in the rearview mirror. Bracken was staring out the side window, remembering…his son, his wife, the loss? Mark eased the car behind the tow truck. Perhaps it was pointless but he couldn’t let it go. Or perhaps he felt his own choice – that being right was less important than being human. He couldn’t take back the things he’d said, the decisions he’d made but he could, in this moment, step forward. “You did the right thing.”
A quiet sob was his only answer.
As Mark shifted his focus, he saw his own eyes in the rearview, moist, with hope that had begun to shrivel.
Brian, too, had made a decision – tried to do his best by his heart, his friend.
It was time to call Brian. Maybe between the two of them, they could help Leah survive after all.