My father was dead. What a relief.
It wasn't that he was a bad person, or that I hated him. He wasn't, and I didn't. But sometimes things between fathers and sons tend to be a little more complicated than just good or bad.
It meant I would have to return to Little Star for the funeral. It also meant that maybe, just maybe, I'd finally get some break from my damn life, which looked rather miserable at this point. Yeah. Little did I know.
The letter landed on the table. I sighed. Seeing the chance to get some break from your damn life shouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind. Not when you learn about the death of your father, whom you haven’t seen for years, and now you’re supposed to go to some hellhole in the South and say the proper goodbyes. Since you lacked the decency to pay him a visit. Or call. Or write a letter, at the very least.
Screw this shit. I needed a cigarette.
I had made many attempts to quit smoking, with little success. It was one of those moments when I just couldn't help myself. I needed it. Not so much the poison in my lungs, but the entire smoking ritual—holding the cigarette in my shaking hand, slowly letting the smoke out of my mouth, and watching it form various shapes in the air before it finally dispersed. It managed to keep me distracted from nagging thoughts spinning inside my head all the time, an infinite spiral of doom.
I rummaged through the dresser drawer in search for cigarettes—not a single one there—and then for one of those cards used to purchase goods rationed by the government. I had no idea how many credits I had left on my card, but that didn't matter. There should be at least enough to buy a damn pack of smokes. I never was the one for splurging out.
The outside greeted me with choking, sticky air that filled my lungs and made breathing even harder than usual. I glanced over the cars and people passing by. Every so often a police drone would fly overhead. I hated those little flying fuckers. The buzzing sound they were making was infuriating, like a broken fluorescent lamp flickering on the ceiling of a hospital.
The first floor of the apartment building housed a convenience store which had its front window broken roughly once a week. At first, they used to call me every time it happened, probably because I was in the immediate vicinity. Three flights of stairs down and they had a cop on the scene. The third time or so, however, the owner gave up and covered the broken window with cardboard. After that, the break-ins stopped.
I exchanged the credits on my card for five packs of cigarettes. Anything I could get my hands on to survive was good. I stood in front of the shelves for what seemed like an eternity, trying to fight off the rising panic, as if someone’s life depended on my choice of booze. Okay, wine, then. Two bottles of wine.
I don't usually drink wine. I'm more of your regular beer-and-whiskey type of guy. But the situation clearly called for something with a little more kick than beer. Beer—that’s something you drink to cool off after a hard day’s work. Wine, just like vodka, is for situations when your life starts spinning out of control—well, that sounded about right under the circumstances—or when you’re out to find some answers. Although I probably won't find them at the bottom of the bottle.
The cool air and dim lights in the store were soothing. My skin felt like sandpaper.
“Anything else?," the cashier asked in a grim voice, stuffing my things into a brown paper bag. His face was grayish and stubbly, which made him look like he hadn’t slept for weeks.
“No, thanks.” I clutched my fingers on the bag handles. “Have a nice evening," I added.
The cashier snorted, as if I said something incredibly moronic. I realized I had never seen him before. Maybe he was hired only recently, but he already seemed to have been working here ever since the prehistoric era. I managed to fight off the urge to check whether he was bolted down to the floor and covered with cobwebs.
It was the city. The city did this to people. Everyone here was a stranger, an enemy.
In the dreadful silence of my apartment I could hear my own heart beating slowly, reluctantly, with effort. My head was pounding, my eyes burned. I was thinking about the last day I talked to my father.
I remembered it as if it were yesterday. I stood in our living room, bristled like a rabid dog ready to pounce, with my frustrated father in front of me. He ran his hand across his face, trying to maintain composure.
“Have you completely lost your mind? Going to North City on your own? What are you going to do there? How do you plan to earn your living?”
“Victor, please be reasonable.”
“Anything’s better than this shithole. I’m not gonna be stuck here for the rest of my life.”
“Please reconsider. You’ll end up on the streets.”
“Better a street in N-City than a house in Little Star.”
“You can’t be serious!”
“Oh yes, I am!”
“Victor… I’ve just lost your mother. I can’t lose you, too.”
And then I said something I’ll probably regret for the rest of my days.
“It’s your fault they took her away. You didn’t do a thing. You gave her up without a fight.”
I grabbed my backpack and stormed out, slamming the door shut behind me.
I know he eventually forgave me for these awful, heartless words. I know, because I received a letter from him a couple of years after. But despite all the efforts from his side I never managed to fully forgive neither him nor myself.
I read the letter so many times I almost learned it by heart. Folded in eight and crumpled, it was sitting in my wallet, always on me wherever I went. Every now and then I would take it out and read it again. He wrote it several years after I had left Little Star. The paper was an ordinary one, torn out of a grid-lined notebook; the letters straight and expressive, written with the vigorous strokes of a pen.
I tried to find you, to make sure you were still out there. I got your address from Jim; I hope you won’t hold it against him. I’m glad you’re still in touch.
I know you blame me for the fact they took Jules, and I understand, I really do. I also blame myself, and I still wonder if there was anything I could have done do to prevent it. I haven’t found the answer yet, and I’m not sure if I ever will.
I’m sure you’re doing great. I’ve heard you’ve been admitted to the police academy. Congratulations. A police officer is a good job, though a dangerous one. Still, you’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge. You’re your mother’s son, after all. You have her strength and courage. Jules would have been so proud of you —as am I, and have always been, although I didn’t say it often enough. This was probably a mistake.
Please let me know every once in a while that you’re all right, son. I will always worry about you, because you’re my child, and parents never stop worrying about their children.
This letter made me feel like a complete jackass, but then came relief. Until that moment, I never realized how heavy of a burden I had carried in my heart all these years. I tried numerous times to let my father know about everything that was eating me from the inside, but the right words kept eluding me. Somehow I never had this problem when writing to my best friend James, who still lived in Little Star and worked as a doctor.
My father kept his promise and wrote on a regular basis, despite not a single answer from me. I put his letters in a shoebox which I kept on a shelf in my wardrobe. In another box I kept letters from James. This was my only remaining form of contact with home.
You would think that a handy little thing like email existed. I didn’t even expect my father to use it, but James was a whole different story. In any case, he preferred regular mail too. While my father wrote rather concisely and somewhat insecurely, my best friend composed lengthy epistles brimming with deliberations of all possible sorts. I found an immense pleasure in reading his letters. When I did, it felt almost as if he was right there, next to me.
And now, thirty-one years after our last face-to-face meeting, he reached out to me once more.
This time around James’s letter was brief, but compassionate. He informed me that my father had passed away, and asked whether I wanted to come to our hometown to say my goodbyes. It would be great to see you again, Vic. The letter ended with a rather enigmatic note: A lot has changed in Little Star. We are having a bit of a problem, and because of your work experience, I hoped you could help us. Don't call me, we’ll talk about it when you get here.
The letter came at just the right time. My life was a fucking dumpster fire and I had no idea what to do next. James always had a good timing.
Lately I became overwhelmed by the unbearable burden of reality, where drinking no longer offered any relief. Most of the time I have been spending in my bed, fully clothed, clutching my favorite leather jacket. Thank God—or whoever it was up there—nobody could see me. Something inside me had broken into pieces and I was unable to put it back together. I would fall asleep, exhausted, then get woken up by sharp, excruciating pain in the stomach. Several times I seemed to forget how to breathe. I was drowning. Someone grabbed my heart and tried to rip it out raw.
That’s how you feel when your wife has left you unexpectedly, without any warning. When I finally realized what actually happened, it hit me fucking hard, like a brick falling on my face.
“Victor, goddamn it," she said.
We stood in the kitchen like two wrestlers before the fight, and just like the wrestlers we both knew how this was going to end. I was never able to speak out when it really mattered. Words formed in my brain, maybe even the right words, but they never came through. They wanted to stay inside and build and build and build up until an inevitable explosion, and I had no idea how to stop it.
“You could at least pretend that you care," the words were spilling out of her mouth in a chaotic flood, cold, raw, and truthful. "Do you even care about anything—anything at all? Your damn work? Not me, that’s for sure. You don't give a fuck about me. Well, I don’t give a fuck about you either. I’m leaving and don’t try to stop me.”
I didn’t. That last thing made me realize just how fed up she was with this whole situation. Up until then she was really trying. She wanted to stay, and I didn't give her the reason. I starved her. I starved us both nearly to death.
When the door closed behind her, I collapsed in pain, struck down.
She didn't leave much behind except for a few books, photos, and the jacket. She bought it for me soon after we got together. Before I met her, I never paid too much attention to what I was wearing. It was Monica who convinced me to take a better care of myself.
It was Saturday and we were strolling around the city with arms around each other's shoulders, giggling like teenagers. I don’t even remember what exactly it was that made us laugh so much, I just remember that I was happy. That we were happy. Monica always made me try to be the best version of myself. I believe this is what being with someone is all about—I mean being with the right one; you strive to be a better person in any way you can. With Monica I believed, at least for a short while, that I was a better man than I had thought of myself.
At some point, she pointed to the front window of a store we were passing.
“Vic, look. You’d look great in this jacket.”
“I have a jacket already.”
“Yeah, one, and it's riddled with holes. This one is nice. Look, it’s genuine leather.”
“How do you figure?”
“Let’s go inside and we’ll see," Monica offered and the next instant she was in the store.
She asked the store assistant to take the jacket off the window display, and convinced me to try it on. It was a perfect fit. When I looked into the mirror, a different man looked back—a man who knew what he wanted from life and was confident he'll get it. I liked him. I could be friends with him. I could be him.
Monica looked over my shoulder and glanced with approval at the guy in the mirror. I turned around and kissed her.
“How about a quickie in the dressing room?” I asked. She smacked me on my shoulder and went to pay for the jacket. She was right; it was genuine leather. I took a big whiff. I loved the smell of leather.
Those were good times. Once. In the beginning. Before I screwed everything up.
If one was to believe my wife, all I cared about was my job. Ironically enough, I was slowly losing faith in my job either, especially after what happened in Fogham Heights. But then again, maybe I’d never really had any faith in it.
“Okay, Cresta, enough. Take some time off.”
Frank Harvey was the head of the NCPD intelligence unit and my superior. He always addressed me by my last name, like everyone else. Except Monica.
“Take time off," he repeated with emphasis. “You’ve got too many unused vacation days anyway. It’ll do you good.”
“Is this about Fogham Heights?” I asked.
“Don’t you worry about Fogham Heights," Frank took the wind out of my sails. “I know you want to reestablish your reputation, show that you're still a good cop. You are, Cresta, to me it’s clear. The internal investigation proved nothing and I’m glad about that. These assholes will get on your case for a paperwork mistake.”
Frank wasn't on good terms with Internal Affairs. About every three months they called someone from our unit on the carpet.
“But you’ve been restless lately, you keep coming in late, you don’t listen. You snap at everybody. Take a damn break.”
"Sir, please don’t do this. I've been doing my job as usual."
“Cresta, this is not a punishment, it’s a sick leave. You're going through a hard time and we all know it. You are tired and unwell and that means you’re unable to focus and pay attention. You've become a threat to everyone else. Don't show up again until you get better. Then we’ll see what to do next.”
Get better. That’s a good one.
The Fogham Heights case was hanging over me like a dark cloud. Weeks and months went by and I couldn't shake it off, even though everyone kept telling me it wasn’t my fault.
That day the sky had the color of a dead fish floating ashore. The wind was strong and I was freezing in the biting cold. I wrapped myself more tightly in my jacket, but to no avail. To warm up a bit, I bought a cup of coffee at the street stand, but it got cold before I managed to get back to my car. I was drinking from the paper cup, looking out the window and thinking about how much I hated this city.
My partner Brett O’Malley, a ruddy Bostonian with a round face and reddish blonde hair which revealed his Scottish-Irish origins as much as his last name, was occupying the passenger seat and talking endlessly, as always. After a while I seriously began to consider taking off my sock, wrapping it into a ball and sticking in his throat.
“So, she brought my order and winked at me. I swear she did. Red hair, shoulder-length, a nice round ass," he sighed dreamily. “You know how much I like redheads. One of these got me so exhausted once, I could barely keep up with her the whole night, I had to—”
“Jesus, Brett. I don't want to listen about your conquests.”
“Hey, scoring’s good for you. You’re married, you should know this already.”
“If you don't stop babbling about scoring, I’ll stuff the handcuffs up your ass. Then again, maybe not, you might actually like it.”
The walkie squeaked.
“2-A-16, dispatch, you there? Over.”
“Dispatch, 2-A-16, officers Cresta, O’Malley, over," I said.
“We got a call, intrusion on private property, armored male attacker, potential breaking and entering with firearms, Fogham Heights, 44 Creek Avenue.”
“Dispatch, I got it, A-16 is on the way," I replied and started the engine.
Fogham Heights was a rather peaceful district—single-family houses, nicely mowed lawns. One of those parts of the city where nothing ever happened. Until now.
“I wonder if we’re getting backup," Brett said.
“Maybe we won't need it.”
“I hope so. I wouldn’t want anyone to shoot your ass off.”
“They could shoot off your tongue," I replied.
“You're such a riot, Cresta. I’m dying laughing.”
When we arrived, the street was empty and silent. Still, we parked at the given address and got out with our weapons ready. Before we managed to get closer to the front door, we saw a man leaving one of the houses and walking towards us. His hands were hidden underneath a long coat, his face a mix of despair and determination.
"Sir! Show me your hands!” I shouted.
“I was the one who called you," the man said absentmindedly. “I knew you’d come.”
“Do not get any closer and show me your hands, sir, or we’ll shoot!”
The man smiled and it dawned on me that this was not going to end well.
“Tell Steph I love her. I've always loved her. And you two are doing a good job.”
“Sir, don't come any closer!”
With one swift move he took a gun from underneath his coat and pointed at Brett, who was standing closer to him. I shot him twice on the chest. He tumbled down. Still keeping my gun in the shooting position, I grabbed the walkie-talkie stuck behind my belt.
“Dispatch, this is A-16, we need back-up in Fogham Heights, 44 Creek Avenue!” I shouted. “Send an ambulance, the suspect is wounded, shot twice, over!”
“A-16, dispatch, over," it squeaked. “Backup’s on the way."
Brett ran towards the guy, lying facedown on the sidewalk. A dark pool was growing underneath him, his gun fell out of his hand. Brett squatted down and picked it up.
“A semi-automatic 380," he said. “Unlocked, but not loaded.”
He got up and looked at me, still holding the gun in his hand.
“Looks like a suicide. He wanted a suicide by cop.”
“God," I murmured. “Holy fuck.”
I was temporarily suspended pending the investigation at the Internal Affairs—the standard procedure when shots are fired during an intervention. The head of their department was Paul Croach, whom we secretly nicknamed Cockroach. I suspect he knew it and bullied us to get even. He was tall and skinny, with a long neck and big ears like a hyena. He wore steel-rimmed glasses and sometimes dragged his feet.
Now he was looking at me from behind his huge desk as if I were a hairball thrown up by a cat onto his carpet.
“As the police department, we're constantly the target," he grumbled. “Things like these only make it worse. Are you listening to me?”
“Yes, sir," I replied.
“These media vultures are only looking for reasons to give us a hard time. They wet their pants with delight every time there’s a shooting involving the police. We shoot at someone, it's bad. We don't shoot, it’s also bad, because we’ve let some drug dealers go free and what are we doing with the taxpayers’ money anyway. Are you listening to me?”
I didn't answer.
“I’m doing my best to not read the papers.”
Paul Croach sighed dramatically. I wished I could grab the pen lying on the desk and stick it into his eye. A bureaucratic dick.
“Harvey and his gang," he grunted. “A real pain in the ass, all of you.”
“We’re just doing our job, sir," I replied.
“Yeah, sure, you're all angels. Tomorrow at eight, be there for reenactment of the events in Fogham Heights. I hope we won’t have to exercise any disciplinary proceedings. Are you listening to me?”
I left his office, keeping myself from slamming the door with all my might.
The investigation showed no irregularities, like Frank said. I could bet that he and Croach got engaged into some war of nerves, but frankly, I didn't give a damn.
The guy I shot in Fogham Heights was a certain Richard Bingham. He’d had some trouble with the law before. The police made several interventions at his place because of disturbances and domestic violence—he liked to lay one on his wife when he was drunk. After one of these times, she finally moved out and filed for divorce. That day he went to beg her for one more chance. When she refused, Bingham decided to take his own life. He was a zealous believer; obviously he thought that dying from the hands of cops would atone for his guilt.
Brett and I were sent to a police psychologist, a girl named Karen who seemed much too young for this job. She was okay, but there was nothing she could do about the sense of guilt eating me up like a malicious worm. In my dreams I kept seeing Bingham’s face smiling before he pointed his gun at Brett. I had nightmares about Brett dying and me just standing there, paralyzed, unable to help him, or about Bingham killing us both. I didn't talk to anyone about it except Karen, but when I was sitting in her office, my thoughts drifted and I couldn't even hear her voice. It was happening also in the evenings when Monica tried talking to me. I’d spend hours sitting in front of the TV, unable to hear her words or see what was happening on the screen.
As you struggle with all you’ve got to draw just one more breath, to survive just another moment, and the next, and the next—a good way to carry on through difficult times without succumbing to madness—you don’t consider what the future may hold. Hope is entirely absent. There is only the next moment you spend learning how to breathe again.
That’s why the letter from James saved me. It made me take a step back from the edge of the abyss. For the first time in years I thought about going home.
The world was not nearly the same place as when I left Little Star. Our human brains always tend to idealize the past a bit, but currently we were basically living in a hellscape. Everything was in short supply—water, food, cleaning products, clothes, cigarettes, beer, and most of all, gas. It was rationed like everything else, but fuel-driven cars were now for people who couldn’t afford anything better. Those with money owned cars powered by hydrogen or solar energy. I belonged rather among the former than the latter, but I did have a good car—an orange Jeep Rubicon with solar panels, a real first-rate vehicle. The sun was the only commodity we had no shortage of; an ally which could turn against us any time, a deity of destruction.
The letter from my best friend ended that strange period in my life which seemed too much like a dream. In my world that has been frozen, for the lack of a better word, things were going slowly and reality was dense like molasses. Despair finally stopped tearing me from the inside and I became a mad dog. Every evening for a couple of months I’d go to some bar, get blind drunk and smash up everything I could. I broke several windows, not to mention bottles and chairs, and got into a few fights with guys who were looking at me funny. I thought I’d feel better after that, but I didn’t.
Then the numbness came. I was an empty shell. I didn't give a fuck about my job, my ex-wife, this entire fucking city or the fucking country. I didn't give a fuck about what would happen to me. Little was left in the world that I gave a fuck about. Frank Harvey was right. I was no longer myself.
I kept thinking about Richard Bingham and his motives. The poor son of a bitch must have been really desperate. Now I understood why, but this didn’t change the fact that I was still angry. He used me like a tool to make his sick fantasy come true. If he wanted to commit suicide, he didn’t have to get anyone else involved. He could have just hanged himself in his bathroom. Fuck him and his delusions of sin and eternal life.
When I decided to return to Little Star, I personally did a thorough check-up of Pumpkin; that's how I named my dear old orange Jeep Rubicon. I stashed my belongings in the trunk; most of it was bottled water. Little Star was a week’s drive away from N-City and it would suck to die of dehydration on my way there.
I left the city at daybreak. Dawn was always my favorite part of the day. At dawn, everything seems possible. You see the sun emerge from behind the horizon and you’re hungry. The world is young.
For many years, I would get up every day at six with military-level discipline. I learned this in my teenage years, when I took up boxing and had to get up early for morning trainings. I had grown so used to this routine it stayed with me permanently. I enjoyed standing by the window, sipping my coffee and looking out at the city come to life. These few private moments of the morning were often my only breather in the day.
Early morning drive had another huge advantage: no traffic jams. The sunlit skyscrapers seemed to burn bright against the golden and pink sky. I zipped through the still-deserted downtown and straight onto the interstate, feeling a jolt of excitement. I had forgotten how I much enjoyed traveling. I didn’t have too many opportunities for that in the past few years.
The Northern Federation, which in better times used to be called the United States, is pretty much a barren desert—a desolate, rocky wasteland with few-and-far-between patches of dry grass. Life’s not easy here. The devastation of the environment progressed quietly and treacherously until a decade ago, when the world was swept by a streak of natural disasters, nearly forty percent of the vegetation and animals were wiped out, leaving people dying of starvation, thirst, and various diseases at insane pace. Most of the survivors began moving north on a mass scale in hopes for a better life.
Shortly after, a brutal global war broke out for the scarce remains of food and water resources. That’s when the president signed an executive order transforming the United States into a military state called the Northern Federation, with its capital in North City, abbreviated to N-City. An executive order called Directive Zero.
The authorities were quick to mobilize the armed forces and expand to whatever lands still bore fruit and had decent access to potable water. Ever since, the Northern Federation has stood against the rest of the globe, locked in a conflict called the resource war. It doesn’t look like it’s going to end any time soon.
It seemed like a hot day was coming. I reached into the glove compartment and grabbed my sunglasses. A flaking road sign I just passed was a display of false cordiality.
You are now leaving N-City. We hope to see you again!
“Fuck you," I said, hit the gas pedal and let the wind blow all the thoughts of the past out of my head.