It’s over, isn’t it? I mean, the cops got the bad guys, minus one of them, and they’ve locked ’em up. The whole shitshow is over right?
It didn’t feel like it.
Mike and I were back down at the station after the shenanigans in the woods, and our parents were all over us, hugging up and kissing our foreheads and such like we were found after they lost us at the mall or we hurt ourselves at the playground. It was embarrassing, but no one from school was here to see it, so we saved some social face.
That Gary Newburn guy got out since he bribed one of the guards, but Ralph’s aunt Emma was the only one that got in the way of his escape while our folks were upstairs and either napping or watched their TVs upstairs at full blasted volume to have not noticed. We were both still banged up being so close to a flash grenade, but Ralph looked worse off when we saw him shoot Jerry.
We gave statements, interviews, etc., before they told us we could go home and rest. They said we’d have to talk more but figured we’d want to go home and rest. Which they were right.
One upside of things was we were allowed to do the rest of our school year at home, all our homework assignments, our finals too, and no P.E. We’d have to return to class come January when winter break ended.
Over the next couple of days, after we went home, we didn’t talk much to each other, or more so, I reached out to Mike to check up on him, but it was radio silence from him. Until he said that he wanted to have lunch at Greggo’s tomorrow.
I was happy to hear that, but I also felt worried.
I was caked in dried mud and blood as I sat there at my desk in the station, which itself was a madhouse after the shit that just went down out in the woods.
There were already officers down here doing their usual work and such, but then everyone involved in the operation and those we arrested came down, and it was like Black Friday itself. That alone reminded me that I still didn’t know what to buy for Artie this year, so that got added onto the increasing stack of shit I need to take care of. Ever since I got sober I had gotten to doing paperwork and filing reports much sooner after a case than when I drank, which at best I would get to the next day. This time I was still in shock of what happened. We got Gary and the officer he bribed back at the safe house, Doobs and all the guys he brought along, and the money too. Mission accomplished, right?
Jerry died. When the cavalry arrived after I gave the word, Dale was on hand and said he was dead when he had hit the ground.
Part of me didn’t feel like this was a victory, but Captain Bunn thought differently. He made his way to my desk with his cowboy-like stride and sat on top of it. “We did it,” he said, his voice a bit more chipper than I ever heard it. “We got the bad guys, we stopped fraudulent money from ruining our economy, and got one drug runner out of the game. Why so glum, sugar plum?” The way he said that pissed me the fuck off. He said it in his usual exaggeration like he wants to be John Wayne, but he ain’t. He’s never come off this condescending, and a little bit of the respect I had for him immediately vanished.
He kept on and on until I decided to do something about what bothered me at that moment. I politely excused myself then went to the holding cells where I grabbed Ralph out of his and brought him to one of the few empty rooms in the place, the same interview room where he told us everything.
Emma was okay, nothing but a bad bump on her head, but Ralph got it worse. I knew when I saw Gary do a number on him that he was in bad shape, but when he appeared and shot Jerry, I wasn’t expecting him to look like he’d been in a war. He got bandaged up, but I could tell by how he sat in the chair slumped over the table that he was still massively in pain.
“Miss me?” he asked before he coughed and winced in pain.
“Don’t flatter yourself it might hurt you. Okay, listen we-“
“Let me stop you there,” he interjected. “I don’t wanna have a nice chat without my lawyer.”
“You don’t have- Wait, did you steal and con enough money to even retain a lawyer?”
“Retain, no, but I have swiped enough wallets to find the business cards of some of the fine reputable attorneys here and nearby to maybe call upon if I ever go this in over my head. Sadly I don’t have them on me at the moment, so public defender it is!”
I couldn’t honestly respond to that and instead sat across from him. “Listen, we have that deal. You might not even see a trail.”
“I appreciate that Mary, but this was already gonna happen.”
“What was gonna happen? You murdering someone?”
“That I would be out of tricks that get me away from the edge of the cliff. Not necessarily murder, but hey, shit happens, ya know?”
I could only sigh in confusion before he continued.
“This path was set the moment I came into this world because of my dad. Him because of his dad and him from whatever parental figure fucked him over, I was born into a toxic lineage. Aunt Emma breaking the cycle seemed like it would have stopped that, but when she went to college, my dad was still here to ensure whatever offspring he would bear is as ruined as he was. He could have changed too, but he got selfish. I let Emma down by going down that same path he left behind when I learned her tricks. It was preordained, Mary. Not even you could stop it.”
“You don’t have to go that way.”
“I’m not gonna improve anybody’s life being around here. I’m here right now because I far outreached my grasp, and I think I need to really learn from my mistakes this time.”
He looked up at me with his battered face that wore a black eye, broken nose, and stitches. I saw him content. I weirdly felt content too, but also proud. This was a far cry from the thieving spirit I only knew and now a man.
I nodded my head and sat up. I opened the door to the room and called out for Emma. When she came over, I motioned to Ralph at the table and she went in, and they hugged. I heard some crying before I closed the door behind me and got one last look at them together like that.
An ending I was not expecting.
I met Mike at Greggo’s on Wednesday at noon for lunch as we agreed to. I saw he had gotten there ahead of me and had already ordered from the looks of the milkshake he sipped on. We nodded at each other and I placed my order for some chicken strips and fries, ranch dip on the side, and a Diet Coke.
I sat across from him in the booth he occupied, and I asked what he’d been up to.
He just kept on with the sip he was in the middle of before he stopped and responded. “I’ve just been here, man. Here.”
I was confused. “Well, yeah, I’d kinda expect you to be here, in town since we can’t exactly go anywhere with all the questions we still need to answer. I wanna know why you ghosted me over the past couple of days because I’ve been worried. Thought maybe something happened to you.”
“Nah, I have just been thinking about the future.”
“We’re high school seniors, and I think that’s understandable that we’d have that on our minds.”
“Doesn’t it all seem insignificant now, Chase?”
“What are you getting at, Mike?”
“Think of what someone like Ralph did at the age we’re at.”
“He got involved in a major criminal plot, Mike. I don’t exactly think that’s something to look upon as positive.”
“He did it all the while living here, in this nowhere dump.”
“Um, he just stumbled his way into it, much like we did, and we were on the innocent side. Mike, you’re starting to worry me,” I said just as my order arrived, and Mike asked for another milkshake.
“My parents are a fucking mess. They are a mess, and I know if they even admitted that things might be better, but it wouldn’t change that much, would it? Do you know when the last time they were happy together was, Chase? Because I fucking can’t remember, for as long as I’ve known they’ve been these ravenous, mad dogs to one another. They’re just waiting until I’m away at college to do the right thing and split up, and I can see it on their faces. It won’t even matter what college I go to or what I even go for. I thought parents were supposed to be the biggest influencing factor of our lives, but that is so clearly bullshit, man. They say go to college so you can live a good life, maybe a better life than your parents. They both went to college, and their lives aren’t any better for it. So how exactly am I going to be better off or have a better outcome than them if I go? It just feels like bullshit!”
It was hard to counteract what Mike thought. I mean, yeah, I know college isn’t for everyone, but like the way we’ve grown up it has become so ingrained into our DNA that we need college. A degree opens doors and all that, but some people always bring up Bill Gates and the such.
I never wanted to admit this out loud, but I was unsure Mike was ever going to college. That’s not a bad thing, but it is pretty shitty to even wanna say to your best friend that you think he won’t amount to anything.
“Mike, I get what you’re saying, I do, but I don’t like how you’re saying it.”
“How am I saying it, Chase?”
“Saying it like you’re completely giving up. Saying like you’re gonna do what Ralph did with his life.”
“It might pay better.”
“It might also get you goddamn arrested or worse.”
“Isn’t that part of the fun though? That excitement, the rush of blood as you do the things bad guys do and you’re unsure if you make it out alive or not. Motherfuckers peak in high school all the time, I’m sure as hell gonna make sure I’m not after this. We’re gonna be like Gods when we go back to school, and we didn’t even have to play a fucking sport or win some dumb trophy another of other ways.”
“Is that what this has all been about? Being popular?”
“Being anybody, Chase. I still don’t know what I’d do at college and I sure as hell know you don’t have that shit figured out as well. So let’s use this clout we have here and ride it for as long as we can. We’re gonna be kings!”
I was left utterly stunned. This didn’t look like, this didn’t sound like my best friend. This was someone else entirely different I was talking to. When his new milkshake came I asked the waitress for a to-go box. I couldn’t stand to be around him for much longer. I packed up my lunch in the box and bag, but I turned around when I stood up and looked back at Mike. “Lemme know when you get to the science final. Maybe we can help each other out with that. Later man.”
I walked out to my car and saw him one last time through the window then drove off.
I hope the Mike I know returns soon.
A few days passed since then and, I got all of my paperwork and reports filed and turned in my badge and gun. For the first time since I can remember, I had an honest break from the job. At first, I was afraid I wouldn’t know what I was gonna do with myself, but then I remembered what I first had to do, and that was to fix what I have with Artie.
We did start going to couples counseling, which was still being covered by my insurance from the job. We’ve been going twice a week, Monday afternoon and Friday morning. I still had AA on Wednesday nights, so it was three days a week of pouring my guts out, but after everything that happened, it felt good actually. There were some newcomers at AA, so I had to share my whole rock bottom again, but I told them about Petey too, how he would have loved to have seen them there if he were here. As for Artie, it is very much a work in progress. There was more to hash out than I imagined, but it has begun to smooth out some of our rougher patches. Things are good there.
Joel pulled through and gave us everything we wanted on Doobs, Gary, Jerry, and the whole counterfeit operation and all his other “employers”. Doobs got his parole revoked immediately and is spending life behind bars now. Gary, who magically appeared from whatever hole he was in, then got put into another one for a very, very long time. By the time his parole hearing comes up, there could very well be flying cars finally. Maybe.
Joel got a reduced sentence, and as for he and Emma, well, they’re working out things.
I tried to call in every last favor I had to help Ralph, but it was fruitless. He got sentenced, but I talked to Meloni before Ralph would see a judge and fought for him. Meloni agreed to be lenient, as did the judge. Ralph’s going to juvie for the next year and a half before he’s transferred and then is immediately up for a chance at parole.
A couple of weeks after that, I was at home on my couch reading a book that was either a birthday or a Christmas gift, I couldn’t remember, but I had time to read it now. Artie was off at work when I heard a knock at the door. I answered, and it was that kid Chase. I hadn’t seen him since everything that happened, and he looked worried. He asked to come in, and I obliged.
We sat at my kitchen counter and poured us some tea.
“Kid, what are you doing here? It is nearly Christmas. Shouldn’t you be finishing your school shit at home? Baking cookies? Throwing snowballs at carolers?”
“My friend Mike is missing, Mary.”
What he said stopped me dead in my tracks. “Missing? You sure his parents didn’t just ground him especially hard after all the shit that went down?”
“He’s missing. That is all I know.”
He sounded so sure about that. I leaned in a little closer. “Okay, backtrack. When was the last time you saw him?”
“Wednesday after what happened in the woods. I hadn’t heard from him since we left the station, but then he said we could do lunch, and we did. I think what happened has affected him?”
“He seems done. Done with… everything. He seemed to see what Ralph did as a way to live his life now. That no matter what he does after we graduate or where he goes to school, it’ll be insignificant compared to when we stole a bag full of money. He talked as if he finally found his purpose in life.”
“What purpose is that? Being a criminal? Dealing drugs? Stealing more money?”
“I think so. I mean, I hardly recognized him from the way he sounded. It was as if he’d been transformed.”
“What about you? You been okay?”
“This isn’t about me! Goddamn it, I haven’t heard from my best friend in a couple of weeks, and you’re focused on me?!”
“I’m only focused on you because you’re here to tell me about what’s going on with Mike!” The room fell silent after I yelled that out. “You contacted the police?”
“I have, and his parents filed a report yesterday, so they’re giving it another day if he reappears before doing anything about it. Lemme ask you, Mary, does anyone ever change? Has anyone you ever arrested and locked up, have they changed? I wanna know if someone bad can turn good as much as someone good has turned bad.”
“It just depends on the person and if they really wanna change. How much they want the change within them. I mean… we can only really hope, right?”
He just sighed and then grabbed his jacket and stood up. He headed for the door, and I sprinted after him then closed it right away.
“I’ve been wondering the same thing myself. I got all these bad guys, some of them turned on each other, and maybe they stay that way. I should be happy that I did my job right? All I can think about is how my best friend in the world is dead now and that I risked not just my life, but yours and so many others because I had to prove to myself how much I had changed, how I was a good person after I finally saw that I wasn’t one before.
“Unofficially, I can’t do anything to help with Mike, but I hope he’s alright. I hope he’s safe and not doing something stupid. But what I need you to do is not to hold yourself responsible for him. I thought I was responsible for someone, but they made themselves responsible for me, and when they were gone, I never realized how much they were. But you’re young, and would anyone else your age do what you two done? Absolutely, but here’s the thing, you’re stupid when you’re young. You’re stupid now so that you’re not so stupid down the line. You’re too young to have this burden on you. So give yourself a fucking break.”
He didn’t say anything and nodded before he left my house.
The next day Mike was found dead in an alley. One shot to the head. I didn’t know the full circumstances, but the best I made out is that it was a mugging gone bad or a poorly done deal. I reached out to Chase, but all I got was voicemail.
I finally got his attention as he and others were leaving Mike’s funeral, the day after Christmas.
“I’m sorry about your friend.”
“Me too,” he said. Chase just walked past me. Not so much past me, but it was more like he passed through me like I was a ghost.
I walked to Mike’s grave and paid respects.
I became a cop to help people, to save people because doing that gave me a purpose. Only now did I learn that you can’t save everyone, and everyone doesn’t wanna be saved.