by Caro Claire Burke
The mother and father received the news on a Friday afternoon and were in the car driving south an hour later. They drove until midnight, then checked into a Courtyard Marriott for five hours before hopping back onto the road at dawn to cover the last hundred miles. They were silent in the car, which was strange: in their twenty years of marriage, they had never run out of things to talk about. There were, of course, things to talk about now—perhaps more than ever before—but neither the mother nor the father could find the words to start the conversation. By the time they navigated through the college town and parked at the police station where their son was held, they were both exhausted, irritable, and fit to burst with all the questions they’d swallowed on the way down.
The police officer behind the desk looked up as the entrance bells went off. “You must be the boy’s parents.”
The father stepped forward to shake the police officer’s hand. “That we are. Where is he?”
The officer was jovial to a fault. “Just down the hall a ways.” He turned toward a door in the back and waved an arm at them to follow. But the mother and father were silent, almost frozen, and at that silence the police officer turned around, his hand on the doorknob. “Hey, now,” he said. “Now’s not the time for that. Your boy is pretty shook up. He could use some support. Between you and me, these cases happen all the time. My guess? Your boy will be out of here in no time, clean record and everything.”
The mother made a small noise which the officer must have taken as agreement, because he opened the door, which revealed a stubby fluorescent hallway with two doors on either side and no windows. The father gestured for the mother to follow. She walked over to the door, hovering over the threshold as if testing the current of an unknown riverbed.
A moment’s pause, nothing more—then her husband touched her shoulder, and together they crossed into the hallway, the door shutting behind them with a clap.
The mother was an educated woman. She took pride in this, even though she’d never worked. That wasn’t the point, she often reminded herself. The fact of her education was not dependent upon what she did or didn’t put her college degree toward. It stood up to scrutiny all on its own. Summa cum laude. Membership to not one, but two honor societies. A perfect GPA, almost a full point higher than her husband’s by the time they graduated.
He didn’t ask her to forgo medical school. She obliged willingly. It was her body, after all, that could transform into a fantastical vessel. It would be the most gorgeous sacrifice to be a mother and nothing else. An intellectual pilgrimage in its own right, raising an organism to completion.
There were seven miscarriages in all. With each failed pregnancy, the mother felt her husband’s efforts to love better, softer, gentler. She noticed how he no longer rested his full weight on her when they made love, instead choosing to hover in the space above her. Eventually, she started to wonder if she was more fragile than she knew, and so she began to take multivitamins daily, her mouth coated with a chalk that would, she hoped, keep her bones from breaking. She started to worry aloud about her ribs snapping, and her husband, in turn, tried to minimize her fear by touching her even less. By the time their first and only child was conceived, they had found a way to make love while barely touching at all.
The mother was an educated woman, but educated is not synonymous with practical. So when she finally gave birth to a healthy baby boy, she couldn’t help but wonder if a miracle had taken place. Then her husband brushed away the hair from her forehead, and that contact with her body—so certain, so intentional—confirmed to her that something holy was cradled in her arms.
The drunk tank was a small room with a bench slat nailed to the wall and one drafty window by the ceiling that seemed to have expedited the boy’s sobering-up process, as he reeked of booze but faced his parents with clear eyes.
At the sight of his parents, the boy rushed forward, and his muscular force combined with their resting energy almost knocked the group over.
“Hey now, hey there,” the father said. “You’re okay now. We’re here now.”
The boy nodded, his eyes red. The father turned to the police officer. “If you don’t mind giving us a moment alone with our son, I’d appreciate if you showed our lawyer the way here once he arrives.”
The officer slipped out of the room, and the father turned to the boy. “Well,” he said. “What the hell happened?”
The father was a late bloomer. Tiny in high school. Literally, the kids called him Tiny. To counter this, his old man had had a habit of reassuring him that a growth spurt was imminent. “Any day now,” his father insisted, day in and day out. The father couldn’t understand why it mattered so much, whether or not he eventually developed the wingspan of a linebacker. He was happy, and he had friends who called him Tiny, so who gave a damn how tall he was?
In the summer before college, he grew ten inches.
It was nice, being a large man. Size did seem to lend an immediate, albeit undeserved type of respect. But still. When his wife became pregnant for the first time, one thought rose above the rest: he would not tell his son that it was a matter of time before he surpassed six feet. Rather, he would tell him that it really didn’t matter either way.
The first baby was, in fact, a boy. Then the miscarriage happened. When the mother became pregnant again, the father rearranged his agreement with his future son. “I won’t care if you even make it to five-foot-five,” he whispered to the small bump beneath his wife’s shirt. “I won’t say anything at all.”
Then the next miscarriage happened, and he changed the fine print on the contract again. Just be healthy, he thought, his palm spread wide across the mother’s swollen stomach. Just be healthy. Just make it.
The father eventually got his wish, and he held up his end of the bargain. When the boy’s grandfather remarked upon how small he was for his age, his father was quick to step in and say it really didn’t matter either way.
The boy was a six-foot-three Varsity athlete by his junior year of high school.
The father was proud of his son’s success, but he could never be quite sure of what was genetic and what was the result of good parenting. It didn’t really matter either way, he often reminded himself. His son was a good kid, so who gave a damn how it happened?
(He did, he did.)
Then, a few nights before the boy’s eighteenth birthday, the boy walked into the kitchen where his father sat eating a ham sandwich at the island counter, and he asked for an advance in his allowance so that he could buy a pack of condoms.
The father put down his sandwich. He nodded. Then, something miraculous occurred: his son straddled the stool next to him, and with great consideration and care, began to ask his father questions about what to expect when It happened.
It was, to date, the single greatest night of the father’s life.
The lawyer arrived thirty minutes late.
The police officer was friendly, if a bit more reserved. “You must be the boy’s lawyer.”
The lawyer nodded. The officer handed him the boy’s file with emphatic care. The lawyer smiled stiffly at him, then glanced down, scanning the chicken scratch. A standard string of events: the girl had gone to a counselor, who had advised she file a formal complaint with the University, who had then notified the University Police of a Potential Situation. Since she hadn’t actually filed any legal charges, the University Police had suggested the Real Police hold him in the drunk tank for the night. His BAC was off the charts when they found him, not to mention the fact that he was just plain underage, so it was an easy enough capture. They hauled him to the station early Friday evening. At some point, a University official must have called the boy’s parents, after which the father did a rudimentary online search for the most expensive lawyer in a fifty-mile radius, and here they all were.
The lawyer held the paper up to the officer. “This my copy?”
The officer nodded. “Sure, you keep that one.”
The father was in the hallway when the door opened. He pushed himself off of the wall to offer the lawyer a handshake. “Thanks for coming in on the weekend. I imagine you must be a busy man.”
The lawyer clapped a hand on the father’s shoulder. “That’s what I’m here for. Your son in there?”
The father nodded. “And my wife. We had a little—I started to raise my voice, so my wife suggested I excuse myself.” He lifted his arms, then dropped them. “All I can think about is how badly I want a cigarette. I don’t even smoke, for crying out loud.”
The lawyer was used to this. In moments of trauma, people tended to overshare. The best thing to do was to give them a task. “Why don’t you come in with me and we can figure out what’s going on?”
The father nodded, then turned to the closest door on the right. With the addition of two folding chairs, the lawyer and the father were soon sitting across from the mother and the boy, who were both perched upon the slatted bed.
“Well then,” the lawyer said. “Now that we’re here—”
“Tell him what you told us,” the father said to the boy. “Tell him exactly what you said earlier.”
The boy shifted back on the bed until he was leaning against the white cinderblock wall. He pulled his knees up to his chest, but before he could speak his mother spoke for him. “He didn’t do it.”
“I’m sure he didn’t,” the lawyer said. “But regardless—”
“Should we be worried, here?” The father couldn’t seem to sit still. He was wringing his hands over and over, as if trying to work through the skin and into the bone. The mother, on the other hand, was totally still, her brow furrowed, as if she were trying to work out an equation written on the cinderblock walls. “In your experience, I mean,” the father added. “In your experience, how do we know if we should be worried, or if this is all just a misunderstanding?”
The lawyer cleared his throat, then turned to the boy. “Here’s what you need to understand,” he said. “Here’s what’s going to matter for you: semen. Eyewitnesses. Any sort of hospital kit, if she elects to have an examination.” The lawyer ticked off on his fingers as he went. The father, the mother and the boy stared at the lawyer’s splayed hand as he continued. “Dead skin cells, scratch marks, any history of violence, that sort of thing. Are you following me?”
The boy’s face was now electrified with fear. “That doesn’t guarantee conviction, either way,” the lawyer added. “If she does decide to follow through with the charges, that is.”
The mother brought a fist to her mouth and pressed hard. The father held out his hands, as if the lawyer might need extra fingers to tick off more horrible things to think about. “What now, then?” the father asked. “Where do we go from here?”
“Well.” The lawyer curled his hands back into fists and rested his elbows on his knees. “We can start with that list.”
In that brief collection of seconds, each person’s mind went to a different bullet point on the list. The lawyer wondered if the girl had elected to get an examination kit from the hospital, and decided it was unlikely, as no real charges had been filed yet. The father stared at his son’s fingernails, and he wondered if there were any skin cells to be found, and he suddenly felt faint. The mother thought about histories of violence, and the notion was so absurd—her husband so gentle it bordered on oppressive—that she sighed, and her brow furrowed deeper.
The boy thought about semen, and when everyone turned to him a few moments later, he said this aloud.
There was silence as the word echoed in the room. Then, before the lawyer could say anything, before his mother could ask what exactly he meant, the father stood up in a motion so swift his chair fell over and smacked the boy across the face with such reverberating force that he had to take a step to balance himself after.
In a moment, the lawyer was standing between the boy and the father. He turned to the father, his hands held up, his fingers splayed out once more. “Why don’t you and I take a walk?”
The father was out of the room before the lawyer could grab his jacket.
On one side of the police station was an abandoned gravel lot, and on the other side was a parking lot that the police department shared with a gas station. The lawyer knew where the father had gone after storming out of the room, and he decided to lean against the station facing the parking lot so that when the father emerged from the gas station, cigarette pack in hand, he would have no choice but to walk back over.
The father stopped a few feet short of the lawyer. He gestured with the pack. The lawyer shook his head. The father shrugged. After a few unsuccessful attempts at lighting, the lawyer grabbed the lighter and held it steady.
The father took his first drag. The lawyer spoke over the father’s coughing. “These things are always hard for everyone involved.”
The father talked to the barren lot. “You have kids?”
“Four.” The lawyer turned to face the same direction. To a passerby, it might not have even looked like the two men knew each other at all. Then the father let out a massive exhalation. “Raising a child is just—it’s a constant state of agitation.”
The lawyer laughed, and at that, the father barked out a laugh, too. “It is!” he insisted, and suddenly they were two men on adjacent bar stools, laughing about the least important thing in the world. “Everything that you did before kids, all of the errands and the day-to-day living . . .” He trailed off and turned to the lawyer. “It’s all just, just fucking loaded with danger suddenly. It’s just—it’s constant.”
The lawyer laughed again in agreement, then he realized the father was waiting for him to respond. “It sounds like you’re the right type of parent,” he supplied.
The father kicked at the curb, shrugging his massive shoulders beneath a wrinkled button-down shirt. “I like to think so. But you don’t ever know for sure, do you? If any of it is reaching them.”
“I suppose that’s true,” the lawyer said, then added, “Look, no one thinks—”
“I taught him how to use a condom.”
“What?” The lawyer took a step back, and the father moved forward to close the space.
“It’s important to me that you know, man to man, that I taught my son to use a condom.”
“I believe you,” the lawyer said evenly. “We all believe you.”
The father shook his head in disbelief. “For Christ’s sake,” he said, and his voice cracked. “What kind of man can’t teach his son how to treat a woman?”
There was silence, then the whooshing of a car driving too fast down the road, then silence again as the two men stared at one another. In that infinite moment, right before the lawyer suggested they return inside, the father wondered if he might disintegrate into ash on the sidewalk, right there. All of that effort to love his son—and not just to love, but to love right—seemed flimsy now, like it couldn’t hold a penny without collapsing into itself. None of it mattered either way, the father thought. None of it ended up mattering a damn bit.
Another car whooshed by, and the moment evaporated. The lawyer sighed. “What the hell, I’ll take a cigarette.”
Through the front window of the station, the police officer watched the father and lawyer shoot the shit outside. He tapped his fingers. Probably would be a bitch to talk to the father right now anyways, he reminded himself, and he instantly felt better.
Then he got bored again, and his eyes flickered to the window.
It wasn’t anything special for the cop to sit at the front desk and deal with a set of crazy parents like these ones. He was used to all of this. It happened constantly at the station, so often that one of the officers had begun to joke that they were astronauts, floating around in the ether, surrounded by the same exact stories and people and paperwork, day in and day out.
It was all the same.
Every weekend there were a handful of grievances and complaints filed at the university, only about half of which ever made it through to the police station, and only about a quarter of that half resulting in anything close to an investigation. The university couldn’t get anything right, those idiots. They sat on things for too long. It was unfortunate, sure, but it was mostly just a waste of paperwork. A girl would go to some counselor, who would fill out some forms and pass them along to an administrator, who would need to talk to the girl and write up another set of forms, and about eight chains of command later, all of these forms would get dumped unceremoniously at the police station, about six to eight weeks after anything close to resembling DNA evidence was wiped clean.
The cops passed the files off to one another with slippery hands and distracted eyes. No one wanted to be stuck with them, especially once the parents got involved. It was too messy. And where did all of those papers end up, all of the matter which held the particles of our universe together at the seams? Into the trash, after a requisite amount of time had passed.
So the cop would nod and smile to the parents, who would in turn treat him like an idiot for being nice, as if he didn’t know how stressful their day had been, as if he didn’t know how high the stakes were, as if he didn’t even know why they were there to begin with.
I wrote those forms, he always wanted to say. I know why you’re here, and I know what your child might have done, so why don’t you take a look in the mirror before critiquing me on how I do my job?
But he never did, because that would be inappropriate, and uncomfortable, and messy. So instead, he blinked away the condescension and passed the forms off to someone else, quickly and without a second thought.
The officer watched the father kick the curb, shrug, and say something to the lawyer. The lawyer took a step back—what had the father said?—and the officer stood up, his interest getting the best of him. Then the phone rang, and he turned away.
Back inside the drunk tank, the mother scooted her chair closer to her son and placed a hand on his knee. “How do you know her?”
“In my biology class.”
“Don’t mumble, please.”
The boy rolled his eyes, then said a little louder, “I said she’s in my biology class,” and the whole thing was such a familiar, worn-in exchange that the mother almost collapsed with predetermined grief.
Instead, she collected herself. She tried to catch his eye and failed, so she smiled to the wall. “That’s how I met your father, in biology class.”
The boy nodded into his lap.
“So she was at the party?” the mother ventured. “Your fraternity party?”
“She was at the house, yeah.”
“I don’t think so. I don’t know.”
“She came to the fraternity without any friends?” The mother’s tone began to curl around her vowels, but she couldn’t help it. She felt that she was watching herself from the ceiling, hanging upside down, all of the blood rushing to her head.
“Not really,” the boy said. “Everyone knows everyone.”
“But she came alone?”
“I don’t know, Mom.”
“Seems a little strange, that’s all.”
The boy was silent. The mother waited a moment, then tried again. “Was there a theme?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m asking if your party had a theme.”
“Why does that matter?”
The mother fell silent, and the boy, who had seemed to close up into himself during the conversation, visibly relaxed in the silence. The mother noticed this, so instead of asking her next question she held her breath, hoping her boy would stay unfurled. Through the silence, she listened to the other side of the door, the footsteps and the voices and that clanging set of bells by the entrance, and she focused on those sounds in the hopes that they would drown out her thoughts, because she was suddenly consumed with shock at what she had almost asked her son.
It was a question that she would never have dreamed of asking before this day, not just for the subject matter but for the implications, for the implied hope that this young girl, whoever she was, had asked for it, whatever it was, and that the person who had done it to her was the child whose fluttering lashes she had memorized since day one, and what type of woman asks a question like that, what type of woman tries to nail a girl to the stake with one hand while searching for a match with the other, what type of woman would ever even consider asking a question with such an impossibly poor line of logic as this one:
What had the girl been wearing?
The mother may have been educated, and she certainly loved her son. But she was also a woman, first and foremost, and so it was not impossible to accept the idea of her son hurting a girl. Men did it all the time. She remembered college, remembered walking through dimly lit hallways with doors partially closed, passing through whispers and pulling away from hands as she made her way through the hours to meet her husband. It was unspeakably painful to imagine her boy doing this thing. But it was not impossible. What was impossible, what was truly inconceivable, was the idea that she had ended up here, in this station, with nothing else to account for her years. What was truly unacceptable was that the sacrifices she had made were in vain, and that her boy was, in the end, no miracle after all.
The mother leaned back against the cinderblock walls, her shoulders sagging under the weight of this new, ugly, naked truth: it was easier to hope that this girl had asked or provoked or miscommunicated than to accept that her life had been a colossal waste of time. It was easier to be an awful person than to be a failure of a mother.
Sitting there in that room, swallowing gobs of thoughts she had never imagined herself capable of thinking in the first place, the mother was, for the first time in her life, terrified of her own mind—like it might slip completely out of her grasp, if she wasn’t more careful. And suddenly, she was so afraid—of her brain, of her boy, of how she came to be in this dank, depressing room—-that she wanted to scream.
The mother turned to look at her boy. Then, with such perfect timing it took her breath away, the boy lowered his head into her lap and began to cry. And just like that, looking down into this organism she had created out of less than nothing (all of those children lost before, like negative numbers to weigh against the one positive), she began to slip away.
There is no miracle here, she thought with wonder, and she couldn’t help but smile at what a frivolous waste all that worrying had been. The mother stared into the wall opposite her while her boy cried below. Her hands fell into that same motion of smoothing the boy’s hair, and slowly, slowly, the tears evaporated and her soul rose up and out of the room entirely.
The hours passed. The boy lay stone cold in his mother’s lap; the father stood outside with the lawyer and rocked his heel to the ins and outs of their nothing-talk; the station’s phone rang again and again and again, because the cop had finally said fuck it and taken his lunch break before the next officer came in.
When the lawyer and the father returned, the boy was asleep, sprawled across his mother’s lap, the golden afternoon light striping his face. “He’s exhausted,” the mother murmured, her hand still smoothing his hair. The father let out a mouthful of air, relieved that his son’s cheek had returned to its normal color.
“I’m going to need to speak to him,” the lawyer said. “Alone.”
The father began to nod like a broken wind-up toy in slow motion. “Right, of course, of course,” he said, but the mother didn’t say anything at all. She looked like a ghost, and so as they walked out the door the lawyer felt a professional compulsion to lean to her and say, “Everything’s going to be all right,” and although he knew this was a complete and utter lie, it sent a chill through his bones when the mother sighed and replied, “Oh, nothing will ever be all right again.”
She slipped out of the door after her husband, and the lawyer was finally alone with his client.
“Tell me what happened, beginning to end, in your own words.”
The boy leaned back against the wall, winced briefly at what the lawyer could only imagine was soreness from sitting still for so long. “Do you want the whole night, or just, you know, the stuff with her?”
The lawyer had spent so much effort absorbing the emotional radiation of the boy’s parents that it only occurred to him now that he’d barely heard the boy talk. But now, staring at this young man, a man who had visibly switched in tone and demeanor since his parents left the room—he spoke in a lower, more relaxed timbre now, free of ingrained compliance—it reminded the lawyer of what exactly he was dealing with: a young man still molding himself into who he might become.
“The whole story,” the lawyer replied. “Whatever that means to you. I’ve got time.”
“Look,” the boy said, then frowned and shrugged in exasperation. “Look,” the boy said again, his face earnest. “You know how it is.”
The lawyer leaned back.
The boy continued to talk, but the lawyer didn’t hear him. He didn’t hear about the trash cans situated in every room of the fraternity, filled to the brim with jungle juice, or how the boy had just finished rushing a fraternity—he hadn’t slept in weeks, he’d eaten vomit, and do you know what that’s like?—or how he’d Gotten Together with this girl on a few separate occasions, and how it was a Totally Casual Thing.
The lawyer didn’t hear any of this, because all he could see was his oldest daughter, four years into the future, gingerly stepping across the threshold of an old house, moving into darkness and loud music and bodies swarming trash cans like flies, shedding her complexities so that the crook of her neck could fit perfectly beneath this boy’s arm, so that she could walk home under the harsh morning light the next day and say with forced lightness to her friends, “Oh, you know how it is,” before shutting her bedroom door and collapsing into herself with the gravitational force of a black hole.
It shouldn’t have surprised the lawyer by now, the way his clients summoned his girls in meetings. And yet, it disarmed him every time, so much so that it always took an extra minute or two for him to shake himself awake and return to the principle of the matter. So it was during these minutes where the boy was speaking and the lawyer was hearing nothing, so that when he finally blinked his daughter away, he had to hold a hand up, offer a polite smile and say, “I’m sorry. Could you start again?”
The boy nodded, and right as he began to speak again, there was a knock at the door.
The mother and the father sat on a bench in the hallway, the mother’s purse placed between them. They watched the police officer knock on the door, then walk back down the hallway with the lawyer to a separate room, the lawyer giving them a smile that was half the length it had been when the day began. There was the clap of a door, and the couple was alone again.
“I’m hungry,” the mother said suddenly. “Are you hungry? We haven’t eaten.”
The father rubbed his temples, then dropped his hands. “If he did it—”
“So you’re not hungry, or you are?”
“Jesus,” the father snapped. “Can you take this a little bit more seriously?”
The mother was silent, her eyebrows raised slightly as she stared at the tiles of the hallway floor. The father felt the shift in the air, but he continued to speak, like a figure walking head-bowed into the wind. “If he did it,” he started again, “We have to support him. Get him therapy, figure this thing out.”
The mother said nothing, and since the father was thinking about how he might hold this family together, he took his wife’s silence as grief, and concession. But the mother was not grieving. She was flying down her life’s timeline, flipping through the closet of skins she’d stepped into through the years: sister, daughter, housewife, valedictorian, almost mother, actual mother. And how strange, really, that a single, irreversible moment—a decision made by a separate brain, albeit one that she had brought to life—might erase all of the roles she had captained in her life, and instead guarantee she would ever be known for one thing: being the mother of a rapist.
If the mother had believed her husband to be unraveling in the same manner and speed as she was (which, in fact, he was, but it was so against his character that it was impossible to know), she would have laughed and said aloud, “My God, it’s like a science experiment gone terribly wrong.”
Instead, she offered up the only other truth that came to mind. “If he did it,” she said, “I think we should suggest a settlement.”
The father turned to face the mother, his face overcome with emotions she could not parse. Her expression, too, was undecipherable to him, and together they stared at one another, trapped in the hieroglyphs of their marriage. Then, the first miracle finally occurred, twenty-odd years late: staring at her husband, who looked exhausted and defeated, the mother’s rage fell away. In its place came love, in great rushing torrents. What a relief, to feel that again.
Her husband was grieving the loss of his child, and the mother knew grief all too well. So instead of explaining to him how she was starting to think that there was no moral to the story, instead of reminding him that they had thrown everything but the kitchen sink at raising their child to be good and kind and gentle, she reached toward his face. He flinched back, and so she moved a little slower, and by the time her palm cupped his cheek, it barely felt like she was touching him at all.
As his wife brought a second hand to his face, the father felt the distinct sensation of stepping backwards in time, back to the days when he pressed hungrily into his wife, back to the mornings when he’d clip his son into the car seat and tug three times to make sure the buckle was working, back to that night he sat underneath the dim kitchen glow with his son until midnight, telling him everything he had to know, even the awkward parts (you might not last long), even the hard parts (it doesn’t matter if it ruins the moment, you have to ask, you have to hear her say yes), before padding up the stairs and into his bedroom to tap his wife awake, overcome with the sheer aliveness of such an important moment (the only moment that mattered, really, between father and son), ready to burst if he didn’t tell someone immediately what happened, so that his wife was barely awake before the words began to spill out of him.
The father relented himself to these memories for a minute or two, his eyelids heavy, his chin resting its weight into his wife’s palms, like a boat tucked away in a cove during a storm. He was so tired. He knew the guilt would find its way back, but for now, he was safe. All of it mattered, he thought in drowsy, half-hearted wonder. All of it ended up mattering, anyways.
At least, all of it mattered to me.
The lawyer knew what was going to happen as soon as he saw the police officer’s expression: a swirling of frustration and relief and confusion, all of which could only signal one thing.
“Girl dropped the complaint. Won’t be filing any charges.”
They were sitting in another bare room. The lawyer nodded. “Thanks for telling me.”
The police officer reached his hand out, and they shook, then stood up. There were so many things to say, so many stories to share—the relentless rhythm of it all was exhausting, and infuriating, and isolating—but none of it was professional, and neither of them wanted to be the one to break protocol and ask if the other wanted to get a beer first.
The officer gestured for the lawyer to walk first, and the two of them walked down opposite ends of the hallway, returning to their days.
It was the lawyer’s least favorite part of the whole thing, telling clients they were off the hook.
There was something deeply unsatisfying about dealing with crimes without going to court, the lawyer had learned. Trials provided absolution, closure, atonement. But when the girls (because they were always girls) dropped the charges, it left a chasm in the ground, a hole so deep and dark and vast you couldn’t see the bottom—and just about everyone fell in.
So it was when the lawyer told the family there would be no formal charge, before standing up, telling the father the invoice would be in the mail shortly, and walking out the door.
The mother and the father drove the ten hours north without stopping. The first few hours were quiet, but slowly, they began to speak again: about their plans for the following weekend, about what to get the boy for Christmas, about the father’s upcoming meeting with the Hospital board.
While the mother spoke, the father thought about calling a family therapist when they got home, or maybe just calling his own father at the nursing home and telling him he was sorry, maybe, for being so harsh. (He would call neither.)
While the father spoke, the mother thought about taking her MCATs, about asking her husband what he thought about picking up and moving across the country, just the two of them, and starting all over again. (She would do neither.)
It felt good, to be able to talk again. Neither of them wanted to get in the way of that. They didn’t speak once about what had happened, and never would again.
The lawyer drove home in time for dinner.
The girl submitted an application to drop out of biology class.
The boy deleted the girl’s number.
The officer paused, his eyes on the microwave.
He’d been warming a mug of already-burnt coffee when the entrance bells jingled.
For a moment, time stopped, and he allowed himself the gift of closing his eyes and taking a deep breath in the privacy of the cramped kitchen he’d come to call home. Only for a moment—then he grabbed his mug, rearranged his expression into something warm, and walked back to the front desk, reaching for a manila folder on the way.
He smiled at the couple in the doorway.
“You must be the boy’s parents. Come on in.”
Caro Claire Burke is a writer based in Los Angeles. She is currently at work on a dual-genre MFA in fiction and non-fiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Previously, her work has been published in The Chattahoochee Review and The Atlantic. Burke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration: “Exhaust” by Courtney Bennett
Second Illustration: Emma Hamilton