Mitch unlocked his front door with the care of a burglar. There was no one to wake but he had neighbours, The Contreraz’ had young kids and tomorrow they would be awake early. He wanted to give Rosa and Paulo a break. They liked having a cop in the building, didn’t comment on the first few months where he would weep in the early hours after Katie died.
Christmas Eve, and the stink of another murder on his skin. The fourth year in a row, a family slaughtered and arranged in the living room, intestines on the tree, the fog of blood in the air and black jokes from the forensics guys about overtime. Mitch had been the principal on this one, although there was a federal task force, nicknamed Santa’s Workshop, who had been working the case with no further way forward.
Gun sales went up year on year, bigger locks and louder alarms but still, nothing stopped it. Always one family, different ethnicities, a gay couple and their two kids last year and this year, a high school guidance counsellor and his family.
Mitch switched on the fluorescent and looked at the visitor, sat at the scarred kitchen table.
Pete. Dead for three years thanks to a fourteen year old when they hit through the door on an apartment as part of a citywide raid on the operation of a twenty five year old drug dealer called Psyches and his crew. Retaliation disguised as justice, it didn’t make Pete any less dead.
He was bleached white, his cheeks jowled like sloughed off wallpaper and the small black hole in his throat exhaling smoke from the menthol that hung eternally from the corner of his mouth. Pete, partner for eight years, helped carry Katie’s coffin.
‘We gotta talk.’
Mitch’s legs nearly went from under him. Pete came around, picked him up with cold hands and a warm smile, poured him a slug from the bottle of Hennessey that sat in the cupboard under the sink and began to talk.
Mitch listened. What else could he do?
Pete’s voice was soothing, the rasp of cigarettes and too much red meat lended it a lovely burr and as he told Mitch how things worked in the afterlife, he began to nod off.
There was another visitor when he woke up, chin tacky with saliva. A small boy, blue do rag and a snarl that could have been cute. Pete’s shooter, already with the eyes of someone dead on arrival. Mitch poured his own drink, lit a cigarette and listened. If he was insane, then it was one way to feel important, which was all anyone ever wanted.
Alone in a crib, ceiling black with mould. The sounds of flesh on flesh and raised voices, sobs then later the sound of flesh and flesh, different kinds of sobs. The faint ringing of bells and voices sounded in unision. It is always cold in the room, and he learns to stop crying because no one comes if he does or does not.
He learned pain early on. It evolved due to his indifference, a dark thirst that could never be quenched. Slaps, then punches. Mother with her cigarettes and then the cuddles afterwards, fingers at the places that mothers should not go. No presents underneath the tree. No tree. Life lived looking through a window and never understanding what was on the other side.
In the slaughterhouse, where everything made sense. A bolt gun and absorbing the fearful light that lived and died in the eyes of each cattle that passed to him.
It was not enough.
Mitch closed his eyes and when he opened them again, there sat the guidance counsellor, his thinning hair shone underneath the fluorescent and he still had the lipless second mouth, a deep cut across both arteries. He had fought to save his children and wife, his delicate features smeared by a solid blow to the nose. He began to speak. A different voice but the same story.
He sees them shopping. Their happiness makes his teeth ache, mouth filling with saliva and he would have to find somewhere to vomit the pain away. Their smiles, their hopes, reminders of a joy that causes him actual pain. He had an apprenticeship when he was caught on a breaking and entering, a refinement that he took to with a dedication that no one questioned.
After the first one, his pain went away. He spent ten months without agony and it made life bearable again. When he found himself suffering, he knew that this would be the how of his world. People would do anything to escape pain. Each year was a refinement, a tolerance demanded it and by the October of the following year, he was locked into this cycle of pain and relief. That he had only known torment was a relief, like a visit home to loving relatives.
Katie. Before the cancer. Nurses and cops went together like peanut butter and jelly, understood the gallows humour and the loss. He would read to her until the pain medication kicked in, she liked Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Mitch wept, as much for her as that little boy and the twitching nerve that he grew into, so full of pain that he had to plant it in the lives of others.
She smiled, told him that she loved him, that he was a good man and a good cop, then reached into her shirt pocket retrieved a folded piece of paper and slid it across the table. He went to touch her and she shook her head.
‘I wish that we could. There are rules.’
In her handwriting, an address.
When they arrested him, there were mementoes. Presents that sat in a locked trunk. It made him sad that they were still unopened. He was smaller than they expected, but malnourishment did that. His eyes though, were black stones pressed into the sockets and Mitch gave him the full stare. He wished him a merry christmas and the guy gave him a stare like a dog being shown a card trick.
When he got back, he heard the sounds of merriment from next door. The door opened and he looked down at the beaming smile of their youngest. Then Rosa, apologising and she saw something in his face that made her stop.
She invited him in.
He looked at his apartment door, there was half a bottle left of the Hennessey but before he made his decision, he felt the child’s hand take his and then he was already walking inside.
Blinking away tears.