Jamal stops at the corner, frozen to the spot. He can see the donut shop from here. Red said the best time would be the mid-afternoon. Nobody there. Only one person working. A young girl.
There’ll be cash in the till. Easy pickings.
But he was wrong. There are folks in there. Coupla kids. Maybe just got out of school.
His feet shuffle back and forth. He chews on his lip. He struggles to find his breath.
Cash. Jamal just needs twenty, maybe twenty-five bucks. Then Red can help him. Give him something to muffle out the noise in his head. Put a stop to the voices. Round and round and round they go.
Maybe get some sleep.
Some sleep would be good.
The kids leave. Jamal can hear the tinkle of the door’s bell from here. His feet begin to move again, almost as if on their own, but this time toward the shop. He tries to make them stop. Turn around. Just go back to the camp under the bridge. After all, this was, is a bad idea.
But somehow he’s there. Pushing the door. Hearing the bell ring out.
The girl behind the counter is young. Maybe eighteen. Nineteen at best. She’s pale white, probably a night owl, has one of those little nose studs, and her hair, black with some purple streaks, seems to be trying to escape the captive net that holds it to her head. A single strand, more purple than black, has slipped through its bindings, and slithers down to her cheek, as if calling back to the rest to join it. Hearing the bell, she turns, smiles – both with her mouth and eyes – at Jamal. Then – something he’s not used to – she spins back around and continues making and stacking the little donut boxes, not showing the slightest worry about a young black man walking in with dirty hair and dingy clothes, his hands hidden in his pockets.
Keeping his head down, he finds his way to the glass display, where his eyes are captured by the sugary delights just within. Glazed. Chocolate bars. Raspberry filled. Some with sprinkles. Most without.
He should be tempted. He should be hungry. But all he really wants is for the noise to stop.
Pulling his hand from his pocket, he slides it under his fatigue jacket, his intent to grab the butter knife he “borrowed” from the soup kitchen. But his fingers will not work. His hand refuses to touch the weapon. Bile rises into his throat. His neck, forehead, and ears begin to burn, and for a moment too long, he’s once again in the desert sun.
“See anything you like?” the girl asks.
But before he can speak, if it was even possible for him to speak, the doorbell tinkles again. Footsteps follow, then someone stands next to him, close, almost too close, peering through the glass.
“Hey, Officer O’Rourke.”
Jamal’s breath catches in his chest. His eyes feel as if they will explode.
“Hey, Marci. Like the purple,” the officer replies.
She beams a smile. “Thanks. Know what you want?”
The officer shakes his head, then turns to Jamal, meeting his lost gaze. “Too much good stuff, right?” He winks, gives Jamal a smile then spins back to the glass. But something passes across the man’s face, and he, slowly, with his head cocked, looks again at Jamal.
I’ve been made, I’ve been made, I’ve been made, bursts through the tangled web of thoughts in Jamal’s head.
“You a vet?”
What? Vet? Oh…Jamal nods. Or thinks he does.
Another nod. He’s sure he does it this time.
“Just get back?”
Jamal takes a deep breath. Is he back? He’s not sure. How does one even know? And, if he’s not back, where exactly is he? Not sure of that either.
His throat tightens, but he eeks out the words. “Six months. I think.”
“Wow.” The cop shakes his head, then shifts his gaze across the counter. “I’ll take a chocolate bar, Marci.”
“Please.” But a thought seems to strike him and he turns and points to Jamal. “And whatever he wants, too.”
An electric chill runs down Jamal’s back. “Oh, you don’t—“
The officer raises an opened hand. “No, I insist. It’s on me. A very small thanks for your service.”
Jamal finds a smile. Where’d that come from? “Thanks.”
“What’d’ll it be?” asks Marci.
“The same. That sounds good.”
“Comin’ right up.”
The cop pulls out his wallet and leaves a bill on the counter, then begins to head for a table, but stops at the last moment. “Hey, would you mind joining me?”
Jamal wants to say no. Wants to just get his donut and coffee and fly out the door, leaving the bell to ring in his wake. But this guy’s a cop.
And yet, there’s something else.
Just as they sit, Marci brings by the donuts and coffees, pointing out the sugar and cream on the window side of the table. “Let me know if you need anything else.”
“Thanks, Marci.” The officer grabs a couple of sugar packs and pours them into his coffee. “Never enough sugar for my job,” he says with a wink. “So…Army, eh?”
Jamal looks at the sugar and cream, but decides against both, instead just spinning a stirring stick around in his coffee. “Yeah…Army. Four years.”
“Four, huh. Well, me, too. I joined in seventy-six. Vietnam was just starting to become a bad memory by then, so, with no wars to fight, after basic and my training, I spent my time in Fort Ord, near Monterey, California. An MP. Hard to believe, eh?” He winks and smiles. “I spent most of those four years gathering up drunk soldiers who were giving the civilians a bit more than they wanted to handle. I guess they closed Ord some time back in the nineties.” He smiles again, takes a long drink of his coffee, and then sticks his hand out at Jamal. “Frank. Frank O’Rourke.”
Jamal stares for a moment, then meets the cop’s hand. “Jamal Jackson.”
“Wow,” he says again. This time with more breath backing it. “I don’t know how you guys did it. And, I guess continue to.” He takes a hearty bite of the donut, wipes his mouth with a paper napkin, and looks out the window as if life’s answers might be out there for the taking. “How you doing…now that you’re back?”
Jamal hears the question, but the look in O’Rourke’s eyes tells him the cop already knows the answer. He tries to take a bite of the donut, but for some reason it doesn’t seem to fit in his mouth. Or maybe he can’t get his mouth to open.
“Headaches? Jumpy? Can’t get any sleep?” O’Rourke continues to probe.
“And the voices…” Jamal finally speaks.
The cop nods. “Yeah. The voices. And the noise. You hear that noise?”
“All the fu…freaking time.”
“Bet it’s hard to find a job, much less a decent one.”
“You know that…” Jamal finally is able to tip back the coffee. Though he normally hates the brew, this goes down smooth. Tastes like something he’s needed for a long time.
O’Rourke nods, takes a sip of his own coffee, and then rests his elbows on the table. “I usually have a partner. Mick. Good guy, ‘bout three years away from retirement. His kid came back last year.” He gives his mouth a twist and tips his head back a bit, as if having to think it through. “Yeah…oh, five. Anyway, he really was struggling. Mick took some time off to work with him. Found this gal…listen to me…nothing like sounding sexist, eh?” He chuckles. It’s a hearty laugh. Genuine. Jamal likes it. “Anyway…he found this therapist, as I correct myself. Right here in the Seattle area. She’s a vet herself, spent some time in ‘Nam in the late sixties as an OR nurse. Bad stuff. Anyway, she dedicates herself to helping other vets now.” He reaches into his shirt pocket, the one opposite his badge, pulling out a little pad and pen and begins to write. “I’m gonna jot down her number. Doesn’t have to be today. Or tomorrow. But give her a call. Her name is Sarah. She wants to help. And knows how.”
Jamal takes the note, stares at it for a moment without seeing, then looks up at O’Rourke. Their eyes meet only for a sec, yet something passes without words. “Thanks, man.”
The officer stands, scooping up his now empty cup and what’s left of the donut. He juts his chin at Jamal’s. “I guess you weren’t really all that hungry. Maybe next time we come for a donut in the middle of the afternoon, try not to leave your appetite at home.” He gives that little chuckle, then reaches out his hand. “Want me toss that for you?”
Jamal, feeling his face warm, nods, and slides his cup and uneaten donut across the table. He’s pretty sure the cop, being a cop, knows.
O’Rourke drops everything in the trash and tips his hat at Marci. “Thanks. See ya next time.” He then turns back to Jamal. “Where you headed?”
“Got it. Nowhere, right?”
Jamal lets his head drop, the best answer he can give.
“Come on,” says O’Rourke. “I know a place. Hot shower. Good food. And a bed for the night. Good people.” He waves Jamal toward the door. “And they have a phone…you know, in case there is anyone you want to call,” he says, his eyes on the little paper.
“Hey, Officer. He’s over there.” The shout comes from an older man wearing a Seahawks sweatshirt and a terrible comb over, the pile of gray hair on his right barely covering his balding spot. He stands at the front of the liquor store, pointing toward an alleyway on the side. “He walked out without payin’, I tell you.”
Taking a quick last look at his screen, the officer steps out of his car and moves slowly but deliberately to the storefront, then makes his way along the wall of glass to the alley’s opening. Stopping at the corner, he carefully peeks around.
A man, also older, his shirt untucked, his head down, leans against the store’s side wall holding an unopened bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand. He’s mumbling something, but from where he stands, Officer Jackson can’t quite make it out.
“Hello, sir, I’m with the police. Can you raise your hands a bit and turn my way?”
The man turns, not in compliance, but more in surprise. He raises his arms, slowly, the right one supporting the bottle of booze not quite going as high as the left.
“Can you walk okay?” the officer asks.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m good.” And with that, arms still up, he takes a few tentative steps toward the officer.
Once he’s out of the shadows and Jackson has a better view, something about the man’s face rings a bell. Wanted for something? Seen this guy at the grocery store? Pulled him over one too many times?
“Can you set the bottle down?”
“Sure, Officer.” The man, bending his knees, sets the Jack on the asphalt, then stands back straight, his hands once again in the air.
“Got any ID?”
“Yeah, yeah. In my wallet. Back pocket. Want me to get it or do you want to?”
Jackson gives it some thought, but the man seems more distraught than a menace. His eyes tell a tale, not one of being drunk, but rather of despair. Sadness. “You can pull it out for me. Just nice and easy, okay?”
He nods, and, lowering his right hand again, reaches back and pulls out his wallet. His hands shake as he opens it, and it takes a couple of fumbled attempts to slide out his license. With a long sigh, he holds it out, offering it to the officer.
Jackson closes the distance by two steps, his one hand still on his gun, then takes the license from the man’s outstretched hand.
“Frank O’Rourke?” Jackson feels a tingle in his face, his knees going weak. “Officer Frank O’Rourke?”
“Former. I retired four years ago.”
“So what are you doing here in this alley, a “borrowed” bottle of whiskey in your hand?”
“He stole it, Officer.”
Jackson turns to see the man from the store standing at the corner. “Thanks for that, sir, but could I ask you to step back around to the front of the building, please?”
The man shakes his head and grumbles something just under his breath, but gives in, slipping around the edge and out of sight.
“So…you were about to tell me why a highly decorated policeman is hanging out in a liquor store alley.”
“Long story, Officer.”
Jackson nods. “Give me at least a clue here, okay?”
“Thirty-seven years. Thirty-seven years with the force and then I retire, thinking this is going to be the time of my life. The wife and I were planning to get out and travel. You know, see the world. Play with the grandkids.” His head drops again, and he lets off a long breath, something really more of a moan. “Damn cancer. Damn, damn cancer. It’s not fair, I tell you. Just not damn fair.”
Jackson takes a step closer, placing a hand on O’Rourke’s shoulder. “Your wife?”
He nods, tears now starting to flow. “She’s in for another round of surgery today. I stayed in the waiting room as long as I could, but I just couldn’t take it anymore, you know? It’s been going on and on and on…geesh. She’s everything. I can’t lose her, Officer.” But as O’Rourke looks up, his eyes meeting Jackson’s, there’s a moment of recognition. Realization. “Holy Mother of…you’re Jamal. Jamal Jackson, aren’t you?”
“I am indeed, Frank.”
“Look at you…you’re a cop.”
“All thanks to you, my friend. All thanks to you.”
Frank opens his mouth, but no words come out. Instead his eyes tear up again and he pulls Jamal into a hug. “Oh my God, Jamal. Look at you.”
Officer Jackson soaks in the hug for a bit, then finally steps back, keeping his hands on Frank’s shoulders. “Look, we need to take care of Mr. Grouchy around the corner here. He’s going to want some money for that bottle of Help-Me-Forget that you walked out of the store with. Let me cover that. Then, what’dya say we go get a coffee and a donut. I know a great place to get one in the middle of the afternoon. You can tell me this long story on the way. We’ll get everything to go, so we can get you back to the hospital. She needs you at her side, my friend.”
Jackson starts to turn for the street, but stops and spins back, a smile on his face. “And I’ll even bring my appetite this time.”
After a long career of tinkering in telecommunications, Jim Bartlett switched to tinkering with words, both, of course, requiring a stretch of the imagination. He has since been fortunate to have a number of stories, ranging from flash to novella, featured in Fiction on the Web, CrimeSpree Magazine, Short-Story.me, Ontologica, The Scarlet Leaf Review, Fairlight Books and a number of other wonderful publications. Most recently one of his stories was featured in the print anthology, The Best of Fiction on the Web, 1996 – 2017. While mentally he strolls along a warm California beach with his wife and golden retriever (shhh, she doesn’t know she’s a dog), physically they reside on a special little island in the Pacific Northwest.