On one of the high school’s side streets, McCallister leaned against the hood of her car, impatience making her crave a cigarette, duty forcing her to resist. She tapped her foot and looked to the bike racks that lined a large parking lot. While she knew it was an unseasonably warm day, she ranked the thought of riding one up in the vicinity of a root canal.
Her mind then wandered again to the woman in the hospital, to their outing, to the prospect of taking her to the scene of her crash. To banish the intrusive thoughts, she retrieved her cell phone and texted Holly, a simple note to let her know she occupied her mind. Holly’s quick reply grounded her.
Soon, the school bell rang, and within seconds, the entire campus morphed into ordered chaos. Teenagers poured out of every door and headed in every direction. Voices rose. Doors slammed. Cars revved and hurriedly took positions in the processions that led to either exit. She wondered how, in this human haystack, she would find the three needles upon which her plan depended.
Madly, she scanned the faces of everyone moving in her direction. She felt nearly defeated until she saw three young men halfway down the block. Their steps lacked exuberance; their expressions possessed no pleasure from the school’s unshackling. They strode more out of mechanics than freedom.
Sure in her assumption, she focused on them. Right before she watched them turn toward the bike racks, she called, “Jonathan Morales, Lyle Keene, Neal Collier.”
In near unison, they stopped dead in their tracks and slowly pivoted.
She watched fear overtake their faces when they looked at her. With a reserved smile, she said, “Principal Crane tells me you’re stand-up kind of guys. She says if anyone can help me, it’s you three. Is she right?”
They did nothing but stare at her, and she surmised why. Plain clothes and an unmarked car could sometimes be quite neon.
“Yes, I’m a cop,” she informed. “But you’re not in trouble, not by any means. Like I said, the principal said you could help me. Can you help me?”
Awkward silence took over before one of them finally asked, “What kind of help do you need?”
“Well,” she said and then fumbled for the right words. “I need some help keeping an eye on Granger Bridge.” She watched their eyes grow wide. When they looked away, she said, “You of all people know how much it hurts to lose your friends. I’d like to make sure it doesn’t happen again, that nobody ends up having to go through what you guys have been through.”
By the time she finished, their heads bowed and they stared at the sidewalk.
“Can you help me? Can three stand-up guys like you help the police department?”
When they did nothing more than fidget, she said, “Okay, I’ll give you some space so you can decide. I’ll be in my car. Just let me know.”
She took a seat behind the wheel and tried her best to watch them peripherally. They weren’t stupid; she knew that, but she prayed they’d agree, even if just for curiosity’s sake. With neither eye contact nor animation, they conversed, and shortly, the tallest one cautiously approached the car. He rapped on the car’s roof and shouted their willingness to help.
In a flash, she exited, and smiling broadly, she said, “Great! Thank you. I owe you big for this.”
She shook their hands as she introduced herself. They reciprocated, giving her a face to go with each name—faces she prayed she’d never see on bodies being fished out of the Granton River.
She told them she would give them a ride to Granger Bridge, explaining, “I had the principal call your homes to get your parents’ permission. With all that’s been going on in town lately, I figure the last person any parent wants a call from is a cop. I didn’t want to scare them.”
Then, she instructed them to ride their bikes home, that she would pick them up. She almost laughed at their wide eyes when she informed them she knew where each lived.
They hurried to unlock their bikes, and a moment later, they were tearing down the street. She gave them a very liberal head start before following.
As she drove, her mind seemed insistent to remember her own school days. The final bell usually had her running off to volleyball or lacrosse practice. From there, she’d jog home and usually beg for cookies and a tall glass of milk she’d swear to her mother wouldn’t ruin her dinner. Despite instilling fondness, the memories made her uncomfortable.
A short time later, the three boys filled her backseat, and she sensed that they were more relaxed. She felt certain they had talked among themselves and as a group decided simply to play along. For the moment, that was all she needed.
She turned on the radio and figured that if her favorite classic rock station did not cause them to bristle, everything would work out. She found herself even more convinced of that when two of them spontaneously—and accurately—called out artist and title.
Eventually, she hit the blinker and made a left onto the street that would take them below Granger Bridge. Instead of traversing it all the way, however, she pulled over at midpoint. From there, they could see the river as well as the upper portion of the bridge that buzzed with traffic. She killed the engine, and the four of them just stared straight ahead. She hated looking at it: the spot where the three had jumped. With that feeling as comparison, she reasoned it must have been torture for them, but with the very marrow of her being, she prayed it would strengthen them, not the opposite.
She let a few minutes of silence elapse before she asked, “Did you guys take physics?” When she saw three shaking heads in the rearview mirror, she said, “The fall from the bridge would cause such a speed that hitting the water would be like hitting a wall. It’d be nothing like a bad cannon ball or a missed dive. Those can smart, but this— The force would be strong enough to break bones.” She glanced at them in the mirror. She wanted them to think; she could even admit she tried to scare them, but she did not want them dwelling.
Carefully, she continued, “I doubt they knew it would be like that. I don’t know how anyone could do it if they knew that … or if they’ve seen what I’ve seen. I sure couldn’t.” Again, she assessed them in the mirror, deciding she had hit home without demolishing it. She veered the subject slightly, “There’s a cabin up north I’ve spent some time at with friends. It’s on a lake. Once, we spent almost the whole weekend doing nothing but cannon balls off the pier. It’s a freeing feeling. It’s a powerful feeling to hit the water and make such a splash. But off a bridge—” She paused to let her message sink in, and then, she lightened the mood. “How about you guys? Do your families have cabins up north you’re lucky enough to go to?”
Lyle offered, “I go up north deer hunting with my dad. We stay at his friend’s cabin.”
“I bet that means a lot to him,” she said. “I mean your spending time with him like that.”
“I sure hope so,” he replied. He unsurely glanced to his friends and then admitted, “I only go because it’s a big deal to him. I hate hunting. I think it’s disgusting.”
“No shit, man,” Jonathan said. His eyes promptly shot to McCallister. “Sorry about the language.”
She laughed. “Last time I checked, swearing wasn’t against the law.”
Neal said, “It would be if my mom made the laws.”
“Well, mom laws are another story. Most of them are tougher than the ones I try to enforce.”
“No shit,” Jonathan said again, and they all started laughing.
When they quieted down and stared off again, she asked, “So what do you think? Are you up to helping me out? Will you be my bridge watchers?”
A peek in the mirror told her they still mistrusted her motives, making them unsure of exactly what they were getting themselves into. Expecting as much, she sweetened the pot, “Principal Crane and your parents agreed to let you out of school half an hour early each day to help us.”
That got their attention, and it didn’t seem to matter to them that all they’d be missing was study hall.
“You’d just have to ride your bikes here every school day. You can have weekends off. I’d need you here until 5:30, and I’d have a Community Service Worker in a van here for you each day. His name is Dylan. He’s a pretty neat guy. I could probably even persuade him to bring soda.”
“You wouldn’t be with us?”
“No. I’m going to be watching Macy Bridge. That one’s easier, which is why we need all the eyes we can get on this one. This one’s much harder to watch.” That completed White Lie #1. The truth was that she’d be watching Granger Bridge like a hawk the entire time. If she made them responsible for Granger and someone got through while they were there, if someone jumped… She didn’t even want to fully imagine the consequences. She swore to herself—and Greeley—that she would not let that happen. She could not let that happen.
She assured, “I’ll check in here with you everyday, though. … All right, fine, I’ll bring the soda everyday instead of Dylan.” She nodded as though affirming a plan she negotiated with them. “So, what do you think? Can you be stand-up guys and help us out?”
“I will,” Jonathan said without hesitation.
“Me, too,” Neal said.
“Count me in.” Lyle completed the assemblage.
She qualified, “But you’ve got to bring your homework with and get it done while you’re on your shift here. You can’t let your school stuff slide, or Crane will throw me in detention. But, if you don’t have homework—honestly don’t have homework—you can bring something else to do. Dylan likes video games and comic books. I don’t know about you guys.”
She stole a look in the mirror again. She had them; she knew she had them. So she whipped her head around, causing their smiling faces to go ashen. “It’s not party time, though. This is serious business, very serious business. We need good eyes on this bridge. Lives depend on it.” She pointed. “From here you can see who walks onto the bridge.” She moved her finger. “There’s the center, where the three went over.” She looked at them again and narrowed her eyes. “Erik, Brad, and Kevin would not want anyone doing what they did. We honor their memory by making sure it doesn’t happen again. It’s what cops do. It’s what friends do. Understood?”
Simultaneously, they nodded and repeated the word.
“Thanks,” she said with a smile. “I owe you. Now, let’s do our job.”
They eased into comfortable positions. She watched their eyes complete a circuit: bridge beginning … bridge middle … her … each other … bridge beginning… As long as they kept her and each other in that circuit, there was hope that the three most vulnerable dominoes would not wobble or fall. They would not become a part of the almighty cluster. They had a purpose. And with their friend Chad in St. Mike’s, maybe it would all stop.
As casually as she could, she wove the conversation around future things: summer vacation, the breed of dog they’d like to own one day, the place they’d most like to travel to, the ideal job. Despite the gravity of their mission, they seemed to enjoy the exchange.
Half an hour later, a white van pulled behind them. A young man got out, walked to her car, and without a word, let himself in the passenger side.
She introduced them to Dylan and vice versa. What she failed to tell them was White Lie #2: Dylan wasn’t a typical Community Service Worker. He recently received his Masters in Psychology and then enrolled at the academy, figuring the mix of the two would allow him to make a difference in the world. To her, all that mattered was whether he could make a difference with these three.
At 5:30, Dylan left, and she returned each boy to his home.
Feeling satisfied with her day’s work, she checked in at the station and then called Holly. After telling her of her intent to come home, she was tasked with stopping at the market for a hodgepodge dinner from the deli. Oh, and coffee. Oh, and bread. Oh, and… By the time she disconnected, she had a list, scrawled on a fast food napkin.
Normally, she hated marketing during early evenings. Everyone rushed, and those who impeded anyone became the recipients of rudeness. She had a hard time biting her tongue and not feeling as though a majority of them should be hauled in for disorderly conduct.
But on this occasion, she felt relaxed, enthusiastic even. Holly was at home in her studio, finishing up for the day. While giving her time to do that, she could feel as though she was contributing, bringing home the necessities so they could spend time together.
She took far too long making choices at the deli counter and then efficiently accomplished the rest. As she aimed for the express checkout lane, she quickly counted her items. Those from her list totaled ten. It was the bouquet of flowers and the half gallon of Holly’s favorite ice cream that forced her to assume seventh place in the slowest line imaginable.
Biding her time, she arranged things in her cart to make her offloading swift. Without thinking, she grabbed the bouquet and took a sniff, finding the scent cloying. Her mind raced to the woman in the hospital, and almost violently, she snagged it and brought it back to Holly. The artist appreciated beauty, and flowers were beautiful, even to her, if she held her nose. And the artist had a weakness for ice cream, she acknowledged with a smile as she moved the carton of it the cart’s edge. She wiped her hand, wet with condensation, on her trousers and nearly cursed the slow-moving line.
Soon, though, she eagerly headed home, to Holly.