My name is Hector. I'm a law enforcement officer. I like that title because it's more dignified than calling myself a beat cop.
I entered the Police Academy out of high school because my parents wouldn't shut up about college and white-collar jobs, and because the idea of sitting behind a desk for forty hours a week and driving in traffic for ten more scares the hell out of me. The day my father realized I would never work at his company and under his overweight boss was the last day he ever called me his son.
Today is a Wednesday. It's chilly and bleak and the clouds won't get out of the way of the sun. Everyone says they hate Mondays, but it's the Wednesdays that get to me.
My days off are usually Sunday and Monday. On Saturday, the last day of my work week, I'm exhausted and I'm ready to spend time with my wife and kid. By Tuesday morning I'm exhausted and angry and I'm ready to return to my beat. Wednesday is when it really sinks in that I have four more days of police work before I get any more time off. Nothing makes you love your family more than a job that demands so much from you.
On the radio, dispatch is telling me about a 10-10 in a residential area between what the caller described as a pair of nasty-looking negroes.
By the time I arrived on the scene and saw the men on a mostly-brown front lawn, both of them bloody and tired, one of the men was laying on the ground with his hands up in surrender. The other was standing unsteady over him, pointing a handgun at the downed man's head with his one good arm while the other was limp at his side.
I parked and scrambled out of my car, and neither of the men had noticed me yet. I shouted at them but my voice was nothing next to the sudden gunshot that put a bullet in the ground an inch from the downed man's head. My ears whined while an angry-looking white woman opened a window of a nearby house. I couldn't hear much of it, but she screamed something about negroes and the man with the gun pointed at her and sprayed a half-dozen rounds, until his magazine ran out. One of them hit the woman in the jaw and the bottom half of her face exploded.
I pushed through confusion and deafness and tackled the armed man to the ground. When he resisted I hit him in his hurt left arm, and then he stopped resisting. I cuffed his hands behind his back and locked him in the back of the patrol car. I told dispatch what happened and said to send an ambulance. Then I ran back to the man on the ground, who was shaken and probably had a rap sheet as long as the other guy, but he was okay. I helped him into a sitting position and told him to stay put, then a little girl came slowly out of the house and asked him if he knew where her daddy went.
I ran on to the woman who'd been shot. She was hanging half out of the window, and she screamed and whimpered like only a person without a tongue or jaw can. She was wearing a sweater, an ugly thing like parents give their kids on holidays, with a picture of Jesus on the cross, and it was bathed in so much blood that I could almost believe I was looking into the past, at when Jesus died on Calvary Hill.
I got her laying on the floor inside her house and tried to calm her until the ambulance arrived but I don't think it did her any good. She only got quiet after a while because she lost consciousness from having lost so much blood. There was nothing I could do better than stay there and be sympathetic and listen to her mother fuss about the mess.
The medics arrived and put her on a stretcher and declared her dead.
And then, sudden as anything, I'm in my patrol car all over again. I pull over and rub my head and I'm still hearing the woman's screaming. I take a minute to pull myself together and then the radio crackles. Dispatch tells me about a 10-10, residential area, between nasty-looking negroes.
I let someone else respond, and then I open my door and throw up on the sidewalk.
Em is another cop in my division, and she and I are the closest things to brothers that either of us has got. We went through the academy together and we've been partners on more assignments than not. My wife never warmed to her, and Em says my wife would find some reason to dislike any woman I knew that wasn't her.
It's barely been twenty-four hours since it happened. Since the woman got killed. Not just in my imagination, but she actually got killed just how I saw it. I'm sitting in a fast food joint with Em eating greasy burgers and fries, and I'm trying to figure out how to tell her what I saw.
"That woman yesterday, the one who got shot, you remember her?"
Em says, "Who got shot in the face? Yeah, I remember her."
"I was there." I say, "I saw it, I saw her killed."
"You weren’t there, Hector." Em talking through a mouthful. "I was the one who responded to that, you were off God-knows-where doing God-knows-what."
"No, I was there before it happened." My mouth is dry and I gulp pop. "I saw it before it happened. I went there and saw it happen, but then it hadn't happened at all yet." If I can't get it straight in my own head, how am I going to explain to anyone else? If Em can't understand then I don't think I could say it right to anyone.
But I think maybe she's catching on, there's a sort of light in her eyes. She says, "Like Minority Report."
"You know, it's a movie. Tom Hanks is a future cop and he sees the future."
I say, "I don't get it."
"He's a cop," Em says. "But in the future. And also he has these visions of the future, of crimes that people are going to commit. And he stops them. Is that like what happened to you?"
"I guess so, yeah." Em gives me a look like she's wondering if she ought to get me a psych evaluation. I tell her, "The woman, she got shot while she was shouting out the window at the two black guys who'd been fighting. Because the one guy, the one with the gun, shot at the one on the ground and missed. So he shot at her. The woman's mom didn't say anything about her getting shot or dying, just complained about the mess it was making."
I see the look on Em's face change. I know she believes me now. "Big deal, you read my report."
"I didn't read it. I swear I haven't seen it. I know because I was there."
"You had a vision."
I say, "Yeah, a vision."
"Prove it." Em demands, "What was she wearing?"
"What was the woman wearing?" Em says, "I didn't put that in the report. What was..."
I know right away what she's asking about. I couldn't forget the image of that woman as long as I live. And I interrupt, "It was Jesus, on the cross. And, my God, the blood made it look so real."
It feels different now, now that I know I'm not crazy, that Em believes me. I made her promise not to tell anyone, especially not my wife.
It's been almost week since it happened. Since I had the vision and the woman was shot. It's a Monday evening and I'm sitting on the couch watching a ball game with my daughter Maria on my lap. She's turning eight in less than a month and me and my wife can't stop arguing about whether to throw a party, who to invite to a party, where to have a party.
Maria just wants to go to a Chuck E. Cheese, like she does every year, but just like every year my wife thinks we should do something fancier. I don't see what's wrong with just giving our daughter what she asks for. But, as my wife reminds me, she would know better, she's the one with a college education.
She comes into the living room then and says, "Hector, aren't you going to wash dishes?"
I tell her, "I'm watching the game, I'll do it later."
"No you won't," my wife says. "You always say you will and you never do."
Maybe she's right but that's not the sort of thing you admit to your wife when she talks bad at you, especially not in front of your little girl. So I tell her, "Go to hell." After I say it and I see the look on my wife's face I look down to my daughter, who doesn't know a thing about what's going on, and I wish I could take the words back and just wash the damn dishes.
My wife was just about to say something nasty back to me when we all heard a scream, which to be louder than the ball game had to have been pretty damn loud. I put Maria down on the couch and ran to the door and out of the house, pulling on a jacket as I went.
It was just after sundown and so the neighborhood was just the pools around houses and streetlights, anything in between was like remembering something dreamed. In one of those spaces, between the pools, there was a truck, a big pickup on oversized wheels, with its engine growling and its headlights off. It was titled up on a side, not like trucks usually are, and when I came close I saw why. There was a boy underneath one of the front wheels, and he wasn't much younger than Maria. His red and yellow plastic tricycle was on its side a few feet away. I'd seen him riding that tricycle a thousand afternoons when I'd come back from my beat. He stared after me and asked me why he couldn't feel his feet.
A woman came running out from a nearby house and into the dark and fell onto the pavement near the boy. The two men in the truck looked at each other, looked at the woman, looked at me, too confused and upset and scared to do anything else.
I went to the driver's door and told him to roll down the window, and the driver did after fumbling around to find the handle. I smelled liquor.
I stammered about a kid, under their tire, that they'd hit a boy.
And the woman, the boy's mother, wailed like Mary at Golgotha.
I asked why their headlights were off but they didn't answer. I searched my belt for my flashlight and realized I'd left it in the house. I reached in through the window and turned on the truck's inside lights. My eyes proved what my nose suspected, that both of the men were drunk. Not happy drunk or angry drunk, not anymore, just paralyzed scared drunk.
My wife came up from behind me holding Maria and gave me a start. I told her, too loud and too mean, to go back in the house with our daughter. I didn't want Maria to see this. To see the boy, or to hear him ask about his numb feet. I told my wife to call for an ambulance, to say that some drunks had run someone over.
I'm watching the ball game with Maria. My wife comes into the living room and tells me to wash dishes.
I realize what's happening. I put Maria down on the couch and I run out of the house faster than I ever ran in my life.
My wife shouts after me, "The hell do you think you're doing?"
I hear the grumble of the truck coming up fast and I see the boy on his red and yellow tricycle, making circles in the middle of the road. I go over to him and tell him he ought to get out of the road, and of course he does what the policeman neighbor says even though he doubles over to vomit right after he says it. Then the truck goes by at thirty or forty miles an hour and I feel a rush of wind and adrenaline as it passes an inch from my head.
Em says, "I heard you chased down some drunk driver last night."
We're at the same fast food joint again, Em and me, eating the same as before and every time before that. There's a couple sitting near us with a kid, probably just a few months old, that won't stop screaming. There's an older man sitting nearby, too, who keeps having coughing fits. Sometimes I hear a cough with a scream right after and I have to assure myself I didn't just hear someone get shot.
Em leans in and says, "I heard when you brought them in for booking you told everyone they ran over some kid. And they asked what happened to him and you suddenly said no, you got mixed up."
"I saw it. Like a vision." I say, "I saw it happen, and I stopped it."
"What, you saw them run over a kid and then you stopped it from happening?"
"Like Tom Hanks."
I laugh, "Yeah, I'm goddamn Tom Hanks. Future cop."
My ego is huge, bigger than it's ever been. I almost want to go see my dad, just to tell him about what I did. I know it wouldn't do any good, but I still wish I could. But I don't think he'd want to talk to me at all, and I know he wouldn't believe anything I told him about the visions.
My wife, at least, is impressed. She's got no idea what happened or how, but she does know that I saved that boy's life and that I gave some idiot drunks what was coming to them. Maria thinks I'm the greatest dad ever, but she thought that even before I saved her friend across the street from getting hit by a truck.
The man coughs, and the kid screams.
I say, "I think I can use this. You know, as a cop."
"No way", Em says. "You can't show me up like that. How'd I ever keep up with you?"
But I do it. I use the visions. They don't come often, only once or twice in a week, but when they do I hurry to where it happens and I stop it from happening at all. I save an old woman before her house catches fire from a gas leak, I save a father from getting killed in an accident by a driver texting his girlfriend, I even save gangsters from getting killed by other gangsters because the visions of it are so ugly.
No one in the department, except for Em, knows how I do it. How suddenly I'm always in the right place at the right time. I get asked hard questions. But I do good, and as suspicious as some of them are nobody really confronts me about it. What would they say? I'm too good at being a cop?
And Em is jealous of me, I can tell. We've always had a rivalry but never as bad as what we were starting to have. It put a space between us that I don't know how to deal with. She's my closest friend, and sometimes I think my only friend. Most days I'm thankful, but some days I wish I never had these visions at all.
I'm on patrol and Em is in the passenger seat talking about some guy in homicide who called her a nasty word, nasty enough I wouldn't want to repeat it, and talking about what she'd do to him given the chance.
I go into a parking lot in the middle of Em's talking and lean out the open window to spit out chunks of vomit.
I say, "We have to go, we have to go now. They're gonna get shot."
Em is confused at first, but then she understands. I pull back onto the road and I floor the gas pedal. Em picks up the radio and says, "Responding to a possible 10-35 reported by a pedestrian, maybe men with guns just north of 2nd Street."
I hit the brakes as we take a right turn fast and Em barks into the radio, "Make that east, dispatch."
After a mile I drive onto the curb in front of a laundromat. People watch us hurry out of the patrol car, they all realize something's wrong but nobody knows what. Em follows behind me while I run into an alley. There's three waiters taking a smoke break outside a restaurant's back entrance and I tell them to clear out, get back in the building.
One of them, an angry-looking Italian with enough grease in his hair to oil a car, tosses his cigarette on the ground and grinds it with his shoe. He steps up to me, his nose almost touching my chin, and asks me why their smoke break is any of my business. The smell of smoke and cheap Italian food is overwhelming.
I'm trying to think of a way to explain to them, fast, and to convince them to just go back in, when some gangsters in a rusting car drive by and light up the laundromat, the restaurant beside it, and the alley we're in beside that, with a flood of semiautomatic fire. Em hits the ground right away, one of the Italians clutches his stomach where a bloodstain blooms, a dumpster makes a terrifying echoing sound that's louder even than the reports, and I spin and fall down.
I think my arm has caught fire. I look at it, but the red I see is just blood. I look away, and my arm is on fire again. Or it's not, when I look back. I realize that if I don't keep staring at my arm, the searing pain will convince me that the only explanation for what I'm feeling is that my arm was dunked in gasoline and shoved into an open flame.
After the gunfire stops, Em scrambles to me and shoves down on my shoulder with one hand to stop my bleeding while she radios for help with the other. I can't hear a damn thing over my own screams of pain, but I sneak looks away from my arm to see what's happened around me. Em is fine, two of the Italians ran back in the restaurant for cover as soon as they realized something was happening. I caught a bullet in my upper arm, and the third Italian, the one who asked me what business I had telling them to get inside, is dying on the ground beside me.
He turns to look at me and gives me his last words. I can barely make them out. He says, "Oink oink. I hope you die, you fucking pig." If he didn't stop breathing right after that, I think Em would have finished the man herself.
The cavalry arrives and medics carry me and the shot Italian into ambulances. Em rides with me to the hospital and doesn't say anything on the way. The painkillers are making it hard to think clearly, and I keep mistaking Em for my dead mom. The worried, weary look on Em's face is the same as on my mom's face the day I told her I'd been accepted into the police academy.
The next thing I know, I'm in a hospital bed with bandaging covering one arm and a needle in the other. My wife is slumped in a chair nearby, napping, and I can hear Em and my daughter playing a game in the hall right outside my room.
Em says, "I spy with my little eye..."
And Maria peeks in the room and notices my having woken up. She interrupts their game, shouts, "Daddy!" My wife stirs and just stops Maria from jumping up on the hospital bed. I go to hug her tight but the pain in my arm is too much and I lay back down.
Em says, "Welcome back. It was some mess you caused."
My wife glares at her and obviously doesn't like that Em is here with us.
"The other times, you know, they wrote it off as a streak of luck." Em says, "But this time, since you got hit, since the guy got killed... Now they're asking questions. A lot of them, and not easy ones to answer."
I look at my wife and back to Em. Em nods. She knows.
My wife says, "I still don't believe it. Hector, it's really true? Visions?"
"Yeah, it's true."
"That's how you knew about the boy?"
"You should've told me."
"You wouldn't have believed me." I say, "You know you wouldn't have."
She doesn't argue it. She says, "How're you feeling?"
"Like hell," I laugh, even though it hurts to laugh. Really I just thank God to still be alive.
My wife says, "You know you have to stop."
"Stop what?" I look to Em for support but she frowns and steps back, and leads Maria away by the hand, out of the room. I say to my wife, "Stop helping people?"
"It's dangerous, you almost got killed." She says, "Jesus Christ, Hector, you almost left me without a husband and, even worse, Maria without a father. What would we do without you? You can't keep doing this. You can't keep putting yourself in danger."
I can’t believe she could see it this way. "I saved that boy." She should be proud of me, she should be happy for me. "He would’ve died if not for me. And a lot of other people, too. I don’t get to save people like that as a cop. You know I don’t. I get there too late. I get there after it all went to hell."
"I know, Hector. I know. But when you get there too late, you’re safe." She stops me from interrupting. "You aren’t as safe as you’d be at a desk, but usually you’re safe. Usually someone isn’t shooting at you. Usually you aren’t putting yourself in the middle of a lethal situation, like you do with the visions. With the visions you put yourself between a bad person and whoever they mean to hurt. And they’ll hurt you instead. Shoot you instead."
I don’t know what to say. God, I don’t know what to say.
"We need you. I need you. Maria needs you."
"Those people, the ones I see, they need me."
"They aren’t your family. They don’t need you like I need you. You don’t even know them." She says, "You’ll get killed. You will. It might not be the next vision, or the one after that, but it will happen. I promise. You have to stop. It’s not like responding to a call. You’re not gonna die responding to a call. Hardly anyone does. But a lot of people die intervening like you did. A lot of people get hurt."
I beg, "No."
She knows she’s said everything she needs to say. She leaves the room and finds Em and Maria in the hallway.
I cry for the first time since our wedding. I cry like the little girl whose daddy had to go to jail for killing some innocent white lady, or like the little boy whose momma just told him why he can't feel his feet. I cry because it felt good, it made me feel like I could do something important. I cry because I can’t see people die and do nothing about it. I cry because I let the woman with Jesus on her sweater die even though I could've stopped it.
But I couldn't keep doing this to my family. I couldn't do it to Maria. I couldn't do it to Em. I couldn't do it to Rose, my wife, most of all.
After a short two weeks of spending all the time I had with my family, I was in the office assigned to desk duty. My arm was sore and I couldn't move it too far up or to the side without the pain becoming too much to bear, but I'd still been deemed fit to do paperwork. The rookies asked me in wonderment what it was like to get shot. Those who'd been around much longer than I had patted me on the back like I'd finally entered the exclusive club, the one you had to go through hell to be a part of.
A month of desk duty and I was back on the beat. I couldn't have gotten away from the pens and paperwork quickly enough. My arm still wasn't in the same shape as before it got shot, and the doctor told me it never would be, but I was still young and I still healed fast.
I've only been on the beat a couple days so far, and it's been routine enough that I barely think about the visions I was having so long ago. It's a warm, sunny morning and I can feel my mood in the sun, the clear sky. I drive down the road and pedestrians wave to me.
I stop at a coffee shop and sit down for a cup, a bagel, a newspaper. I relax and read, and I sit back and look absent out the window. People walk to and from shops and work. Some of them eye my parked patrol car with suspicion and worry, most of them stand taller like just the car being there makes them safer.
My radio buzzed and dispatch said there was a 10-31 at a gas station just down the street. I called in and laid bills on the table to pay for the food. I jogged down the sidewalk to the gas station and through its windows I watched a scrawny man in a hoodie beat the cashier with a baseball bat in the front of the store, and bags of chips from nearby shelves flew around with each swing.
I readied my sidearm and opened the door to the gas station and shouted at the man to put down the bat. His back was turned to me and he looked over his shoulder and saw the gun pointed at him. He backed away from the cashier, she was a woman I knew was working at the gas station to support her two kids in school, whose leg bones were sticking out of her miscolored skin. She was mouthing silent prayers to God through the blood that was flowing from her lips.
The man, who was really just a tall white boy of maybe seventeen with acne all over his cheeks, threw the bat at me and ran. It hit the window beside me and clattered to the ground, and the boy pushed past me and fled. I didn't have it in me to leave the woman just to chase him, so I told dispatch where he was and where he was heading and knelt by the woman whose teeth were scattered around the floor. I prayed with her until she stopped praying and died.
I sat down on the floor, leaned against a shelf, got gum and candy wrappers stuck to my pants and stains from her blood. I held the woman’s hand, its fingers broken from where she'd tried to keep the bat away.
I'm sitting at the coffee shop with the coffee in my hand and it happens so suddenly that I drop it and it scalds my lap. I reach for napkins, and then I realize what just happened. I spring up from the chair and out the shop and start toward the gas station. I think of the woman who's about to get beaten to death and it stings like whiskey poured on an open wound, or like fire eating away at your arm. Or like a baseball bat to the chest. But I think of Rose, and I think of how much of a risk I'll be taking if I go and put myself between a violent young man and his victim. I think of Maria.
I vomit my breakfast back up onto the sidewalk and I walk back to the coffee shop with an aching stomach. I pay the waitress and wait for dispatch, for my cue to watch a woman die.