It had been fifteen, no seventeen years.
She saw him on the stream, just as she was about to uproot herself from the couch, eyes burning with fatigue and head swimming like she’d been drinking, but late night news was soporific enough to form part of her night time routine. All of it was a ritual to mitigate the physical traces of twenty years policing, back when it meant something. They were discussing the riots somewhere, but these days the location didn’t matter, to the point where it felt like every state needed a good solid knot of antagonism to remain relevant.
Time had been kind to him, Jessica thought, but then the last time hadn’t been a highlight of his young life to date.
Paul sat on the kerb, staring out at nothing, shuddering despite the blanket wrapped around him.The African medallion hung from his neck, swaying on the leather thong. There was a single drop of blood splattered across its front, blending in with the other painted colours. Detective Jessica Harris stood across from him as she kept an eye on the CSUs processing the scene. Paul glanced up, his brown eyes watering and before he ran his tongue over his lips and took a deep, fortifying breath. When he spoke, his voice was a fragile whisper, odd for a man of his build.
‘You got a cigarette?’he said.
She handed him a soft pack of Marlboro Lights. He took one but his hands shook too much to light it. Harris lit it for him and he inhaled with a junkie enthusiasm. When he thanked her, his voice was soft and mannered.
He put the advertisement as a joke tweet. A list of priced services to provoke reactions. Running up on your creepy uncle cost twenty dollars. Mentioning Black Lives Matter and giving hard stares at anyone who challenged him was ten dollars. He said he would bring a plate and microwave it. He referenced Ving Rhames in ‘Baby Boy’ over Sidney Poitier in ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’.
Erin Mayhew sent him a direct message and a few messages later, dropped a chunk of change in his bank account. A photo of her made the prospect appealing. Paul thought she was pretty with curled blonde hair, clear blue eyes and a full, soft build running to fat Her social media feeds were a little confrontational, even for him, but she sent him candid photographs, the leg cocked at the knee, turned to one side to soften how big she was in real life. There were a few, Paul said, he enjoyed before realising he was talking to a police detective.
Harris noted how he paused afterwards before she asked him to continue.
He picked her up from her dorm, driving an SUV and she kept touching his knee on the drive down. Paul looked away and Harris asked him what happened.
They had fucked in the back seat, and Paul felt a little objectified even as she came three times. It was, he admitted, the only time she stopped talking about how awful her family were.
He had a plate of ribs, chitlins, collared greens and cornbread wrapped in cellophane like a corpse in a body bag and adopted a rolling, belligerent swagger as Erin giggled and whispered how he should go all in on Trump. The money was good and it would be a good story to share online later, he told himself.
The table was heaving with food and a centrepiece which was a clamshell draped with twigs and dried flowers sprayed silver and gold. Erin’s parents, David and Maria were soft, polite people who struggled to make eye contact and when Paul passed his plate, his stomach soured with distaste as he stared out David without speaking.
Erin grinned with an awful mania as they sat down. Paul told the detective how her uncle wore a MAGA hat at the table, and spoke to Paul about the last Kendrick Lamar album. They were polite to him and every cent he earned came up to haunt him. It was awkward and his nerves made his performance halting but he believed things would pan out for the best. Another hour, he told himself, then he could go back, smoke a bowl and play Fortnite until he fell asleep. There were rumours of an assignment to be handed in after the holidays, but his professor was sympathetic to the cause.
Whatever that was, of course.
Paul stared at Laura as she pulled a jar of vicodin out of her purse. She had a back injury and good insurance, dished out the pills from her purse and Paul shook his head when she offered. Erin took two and frowned at Paul before she said something to her uncle Eddie about Roy Moore.
Paul cringed at Erin’s zeal before he noted how much it was reflected in her uncle and father’s arguments. They repeated talking points gleaned from the internet, their voices rising and falling as they scored points off one another. Paul saw sympathetic glances thrown his way from Laura and mother but he kept moving his stale cornbread around the plate and kept silent.
The hairs went up on the nape of his neck when he heard three words which haunted him.
Black lives matter.
All lives matter.
He studied his plate like a midterm and wished he had been anywhere else than at the Mayhew Thanksgiving dinner.
He asked Harris for another cigarette before he carried on. His hands shook harder and tears ran down his cheeks as he continued.
What broke the moment was Erin mentioning the Trump admission recorded by Billy Bush, which was cue for Laura to defend Kevin Spacey and her sister turned, indignant and spraying flecks of turkey and sweet potato as she stated how her sister always resented her theatrical talent.
Paul said he was relieved when the argument became personal rather than political but the observation lasted as long as it took for Laura to reach into her purse and take out something other than pain medicine.
Just pain, he said.
The Walther had a lady grip and it looked small in her hands as she lowered the barrel at her sister’s chest and pulled the trigger.
Mrs Mayhew’s mouth formed into a perfect oh as she fell backwards, clutching her chest. Paul dived underneath the table as Laura turned and fired at her husband, his red MAGA hat flew off his head with the force of the bullet. Paul remembered how a section of his scalp flew upwards, like a toupee attempting to take flight but changing its mind at the last second.
Erin smiled as her aunt shot her in the forehead. The small caliber round didn’t knock her backwards, and it left a small hole between her eyes as she fell forwards, hair wreathed around her face, which was buried in a hillock of mashed potato and gravy.
‘Imagine that, your last breath then you’re breathing gravy for eternity,’ he said.
Jessica nodded, tasted bile when she swallowed, and kept a soft expression of concern up.
Mr Mayhew, in a last desperate act of self-sacrifice, leapt forwards and wrestled with her, his thick hands circling her fragile, braceleted wrists before she fired into the rounded bulk of his midsection and he slumped forwards, making choking sounds as he bled over the table.
‘Did you like the centrepiece?’ Laura said.
Her voice was a rasping screech as she pointed the gun at him. He nodded with as much enthusiasm as his terror allowed him. She smiled with a dreadful relief before she turned the gun on herself.
He butted the cigarette out and looked up at the detective. The best ideas started as jokes, but so did some of the worst.
Harris sat down on the kerb and asked about his family. He said they argued and loved with the same volume and his father had voted for Trump but he had his reasons.
‘Families are fucking weird.’ he said.
Harris smiled and nodded. She’d left her house after her husband had let their daughter pull down a tray of brownies from the kitchen table whilst he was playing with his phone and she had read him the riot act. She gave him the rest of the pack of cigarettes and gestured for the paramedics to come back to him.
‘Happy Thanksgiving.’ she said.
Harris wanted to mean it, and judging by the soft, wet sobs Paul was fighting to suppress, he had a hard time of it. Most people went their whole lives without seeing anyone shot, and this man had seen a family murdered.
The investigation cleared Paul of any wrongdoing, and when he was on MSNBC, eyes narrowed with theatrical pain and anger at the spasmodic violence of white people, which he described as ‘colonial’, she saw the expensive silk t shirt and how he had removed the Africa medallion, plus the good haircut and media training which charmed the show’s host.
Jessica sat up, chuckled and rubbed her irritated eyes. It was rare for her to remember some of the people she ran into, but Paul was a surprise to see again.
Before she ended the stream, she saw footage, like bad dinner theatre choreography, people jabbing at one another amidst plumes of smart smoke which marked them for surveillance, said a silent prayer she had retired before things fell apart.
She awoke in the night, confused and upset, and as she made herself cocoa at four in the morning, Jessica remembered the matter of factness in Paul’s admission to playing the brute for profit and wondered why he had never stepped away from the table she had watched him sat at, earlier.
Jessica went back to bed, grateful to be old but not alone.