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17. near a fire for the dead

This is a waist-up image of two policemen holding onto Mickey Laddow. The policemen both have short, officious-looking haircuts and severe expressions. They two men are dressed in Drodden police uniforms. Mickey hangs limp in their grasp, head down. Mickey looks bruised, and he's bleeding. There is a number 2, written in blood, on Mickey's right shoulder. Behind Mickey and the two policemen are the shadowy images of seven other figures visible only as silhouettes. They, too, look to be wearing various kinds of uniforms, suggesting fire and rescue workers.
Mickey was rolled to his side and quickly put into handcuffs and lifted up and away, his body limp, his eyes closed,  his chest heaving.

CJ SWEET

“Jay — please stop.  Please stop now!” CJ spoke as calmly as she could, even as she was raising her hands up out to her sides. Police were coming; that was automatically a serious danger to her, even in a situation as obvious as this one. Police arriving at the scene of a crime didn’t care how obvious things looked. They’d target her, and they’d target Jay. So she had to think quickly about what to do. She knew Jay was a lot stronger, physically, than her. She knew, too, that if she reached over and pulled Jay off of Mickey, then that could be interpreted as an act of aggression by the police. All they needed was one excuse – and they didn’t even really need the excuse; they’d ‘pacify’ the situation however they could. She also knew that hugs helped Jay when he was melting down like this. Hugs would calm him down. And the police were a danger to Jay, too. He was Iroquois, and disabled. Both kinds of people were also fast targets for the police. She knew that Jay wasn’t going to listen if she just stood there and pleaded with him. He wouldn’t listen to reason. And, because of that, he might end up dead. They both might end up dead. There was a white boy being attacked by an Iroquois kid and a black girl. And she was pretty sure how that would look once the police got there. She knew she had to do something, and do it immediately. All these different thoughts and realities came into her head in the same split-second moment, even as the sirens in the distance were getting closer. So she came up with the quickest plan she could. “Jay, I need a hug,” she said. “Right now,” she added, louder. It was manipulative. It wasn’t the right answer. But it was the only plan she could come up with at that moment. “Please, Jay? I need a hug. Now.” CJ knew that Jay didn’t always listen to her, even in the best of times. She’d told him not to go along with the stupid prank – back when CJ had thought it was just a stupid prank — only minutes ago. And now people were dead. And she didn’t want more people to die.

Fortunately, though, this was one of those times when Jay listened. He stopped punching Mickey, and looked up toward CJ. There were tears in his eyes. His arms were shaking as he supported himself. He looked down at the still-immobile Mickey, who still wasn’t defending himself. Then he looked back up toward CJ. Then, he got up on shaky legs and walked over toward CJ. He turned and spit on Mickey, who did not respond in any way. “You fucking piece of shit,” he said to Mickey. Then he looked back toward CJ and stepped over to her. He reached his arms out for a hug. “Okay,” he said, in a quavering voice.

CJ wrapped her arms around him, held on tight to him. She walked with him, backward, gently guiding him away from the prone figure of Mickey Laddow as quickly as she could. She knew if she went too fast, he might resist. They hugged silently and walked away, step by step, even as the sirens got closer.  Se knew better than to attempt to explain her worries about the police; it might make Jay get aggressive. She also knew better than to try to soothe him with ‘it’s okay’ or ‘it’ll be all right.’ She knew he’d hear that as a lie, and she already felt bad about lying to Jay about needing the hug. Lying any worse could’ve maybe worked, and made him calmer faster. But it might’ve also set Jay off. So she just held on to him and walked him away from Mickey. She’d been Jay’s friend for a long time, ever since they were both little. She’d had to get him out of some bad situations before, though nothing like this. But he’d been there for her, too, in lots of ways. Even though he ran with Mickey’s thugs, Jay held enough respect among them that when Jay told them CJ was off-limits, they respected it. So, because of Jay, CJ hadn’t ever really had to navigate the shittiest bullies of Drodden. They left her alone, which meant she sometimes had time to think at school … and even to just breathe … sometimes. Her dad didn’t really understand their friendship, but that didn’t matter.   A momentary thought flashed through her head that she wished her dad was there, but then she heard the pitch of the police sirens change, and she was glad he wasn’t.

Jay was sobbing silently as she kept guiding him away from Mickey. Every so often, he’d struggle against the hug, flailing his arms and kicking out his legs for a brief moment. But his movements expressed more despair than any kind of aggression. And then he started wailing, too, which made CJ wince. If Jay was saying anything, it was unintelligible.

As they walked back away from the horror in front of them, CJ did the best she could to make mental pictures of what she was seeing. She didn’t want to do it, but she knew she had to. She was filing all the data away, inside her head. She had to work at it, to push past the revulsion and the horror she was feeling. She stored the information in the back of her head, where she kept the thoughts she didn’t like to go near unless she absolutely had to. She reasoned that the thoughts would be safe from emotional contamination there, and her feelings wouldn’t mess with any of the facts. She knew she had to be careful about that. She knew the police would interrogate her, no matter what. And she knew they would be ruthless about it. She wasn’t sure what might be important to the police, but she knew that even one misstatement could get her into a lot of trouble. So she was locking in the facts as best she could, even as she was trying to help her desolate friend. And then, the police were arriving; three police cars came into view at the top of the dirty road and then stopped a little ways past the rise. “We need to raise our hands now, Jay. The police are here. We need to raise our hands and not lower them, okay?” They’d been through this before – both of them – but CJ wanted to make sure Jay was focused on what he had to do.

Cops?” That put Jay into a totally different mindset. His shoulders drooped. “Fuck,” he said. Then he blinked a few times, nodded, as if coming to some kind of internal decision. “Okay. Okay. Yeah,” he said. He sniffled, then snorted. He turned his head to the side, coughed hard once. He spit out some thick, clear phlegm onto the ground. “Okay.” He looked back toward CJ. He was calming down, thankfully. He pulled away from her and raised his hands into the air, fingers spread. He knew what to do.

CJ did the exact same thing as Jay, raising her hands slowly — fingers wide, palms visible. The police car doors opened; four men and a woman got out of the cars. CJ recognized three of the four men and the one woman. CJ was — very slightly — grateful that she recognized as many of them as she did. She’d made a point of paying attention to which police in Drodden were the most and least hostile. It was a survival point. She worried about the one she didn’t recognize, but there was nothing to do about that now. Behind the police cars arrived firefighters in a fire truck, and then paramedics in an ambulance. Both stopped at the top of the rise and people started getting out of the vehicles. One of the policemen that CJ had recognized — his name was Falke, she thought she remembered — was hurriedly approaching toward them, walking purposefully, ahead of the others. Two men and the one woman stayed behind at the police cars, and the other two men were following behind Falke at a distance. Thankfully, none of them seemed to be reaching for their weapons – yet.

Neither CJ nor Jay dared move at all as he approached. They simply stood with their raised hands.

As Falke got closer, he scanned Jay and CJ’s faces. There was obvious recognition. He didn’t reach for his gun even then. “Okay!” he said. He said the word in that way people do when they’re trying to take control of a situation – the way they do right before they start giving out orders. “Jay? CJ?” Falke asked, looking toward each in turn. He obviously recognized both of them. “Can either of you tell me what’s going on?”

Jay was the first to speak. “Mickey Laddow … fuckin’ killed people,” he said. His voice was quiet and timid.

At that moment, Otis Falke seemed to notice Mickey. “Mickey?” he said. His face went pale. “My God,” he said, clearly to himself, but not so quietly that CJ couldn’t hear him. “She was right. My God.” Then he shook his head back and forth once, as if trying to get his bearings after losing them for a few moments. “Okay!” he said again, in that same authoritative way as last time. “CJ – Jay – you two kids, you need to walk back behind me, to the cars immediately!” And keep your hands exactly like they are!” He gestured once sharply behind himself toward where he wanted the two children in front of him to go. His manner was uncertain, though, despite his effort at an authoritative voice. And he was really sweating. He clearly wasn’t too experienced with this kind of crisis. “Go now!” he ordered. He reached down to his communication radio and pressed a button. “I’ve got two kids — Jay Redwing and CJ Sweet — coming back up to the cars. I don’t think they – …” Then, the radio erupted into noisy static. It sounded like a woman’s voice shouting from a far-away distance, but it was weirdly speeding up and slowing down; that’s what it sounded like to CJ, anyway. Weirdly, though, CJ could see the woman back at the police car … and she wasn’t on the radio. “God damn it!” said Falke. He turned a little and yelled back toward the officers coming up behind him. “Uh … secure the scene! My radio’s down! These kids are witnesses!” Then, Falke said “Holy fuck,” to himself – but again not so quietly that CJ couldn’t hear him.

CJ wanted to get out of the path of the police approaching Mickey and the fires – and the bodies – as quickly as possible, but she knew there was still a tremendous amount of danger for she and Jay until the ‘scene’ was ‘secured.’ “Let’s go, Jay. Slowly.” CJ said. She wanted to make sure to keep Jay in front of her, just in case he changed his mind about complying with the Falke’s orders as they walked toward the police cars at the rise.

Jay nodded and started walking, thankfully obeying instructions and walking slowly forward, keeping his hands up.

Jay and CJ walked on went on like that until they reached the other approaching officers. One of the men – the one CJ didn’t recognize – and the woman both approached CJ and Jay, one each, and moved to take a hold of them, as if to guide them. “Hey,” she said quietly. “He doesn’t like to be touched by strangers, okay?”

The cop reaching for Jay lowered his hands. “We have to check you both for weapons.”

“Please don’t touch me,” Jay said. He sounded desperate and pathetic.

CJ swore, silently, in her head. “They have to, Jay,” CJ said. “But you know it’s coming, so … it’s not so bad, right? Just stay focused on me, Jay. Okay?”

“Okay,” says Jay. He begins shaking all over, but he let the officer check him over. “And you focus on me.”

CJ nodded and walked with Jay, back to the police cars. Once they reached the vehicles and the waiting officers, one of the two male officers instructed Jay in the usual fashion – hands across the hood of the car, bent forward. Jay was gritting his teeth and sweating profusely as he let the officer frisk him. They didn’t find any weapons, of course. Then, the woman frisked CJ – and, of course, found no weapons. CJ could see that Falke and the two men were approaching the immobile figure of Mickey Laddow with cautious movements, each with Tasers drawn.

“Mickey, roll over!” shouted Falke. “Get on your stomach!” The other officers started repeating Falke’s commands, shouting the same exact commands. But Mickey didn’t move, except for the heavy breathing that told everyone he was still alive. And then it seemed to happen within just a few blinks; Falke and the two men were all over Mickey. They were trying to keep Mickey down on the ground, using their weight — not that the bleeding boy looked at all like he was resisting or trying to get up. Mickey was rolled to his side and quickly put into handcuffs and lifted up and away, his body limp, his eyes closed, his chest heaving. At the same time, two firefighters were trying to put out the blazing figures in the chairs while two more firefighters started working on the house. It was obviously pointless; the people in the chairs were dead and the house was damaged beyond repair. But the firefighters were trying, anyway. All the adults’ faces looked uniformly sick, to CJ’s observation; some were just doing a better job of hiding it than others. CJ knew she felt sick, herself – from the crackling sound of the fire and the smell of the smoke. All the sensory awareness seemed to hit her at once. She realized she must have been blocking a lot of it out until that moment. And she started to feel sicker and sicker as the moments went by. She redoubled her attempts from before, her efforts to focus on every detail she could store in her brain. It was like when you’re nauseous, and you try to look at one small point to keep yourself focused, to keep from throwing up. CJ really didn’t want to throw up, because that would mean more time with the paramedics, and she wanted to be done with this – with all of this. Then, Officer Falke was back near the children again. Falke was soon joined there by a paramedic — a woman that CJ didn’t know. She quietly murmured something to Falke.

And then Rick Boyle came into view. He was following along behind the paramedic woman. Rick looked terrible. The front of his t-shirt was caked with vomit and a little blood. His hair was sticking up. He was shivering and hugging himself. But the paramedics hadn’t thrown him inside the ambulance, so CJ guessed they’d already decided that he was just shaken up, like everyone else. Rick passed by Falke and the paramedic and moved to stand silently next to CJ.

The paramedic walked over toward CJ. “Hello,” she said. “I’m Victoria, and I’m here to help. Let’s see what we can do for you both.” Her voice was pleasant but tremulous. It seemed like she was trying to occupy her and Jay’s attention while an unresponsive Mickey was being pushed into the back of the farthest police car from the one where they sat. “You’re CJ Sweet, right? Kevin’s daughter?”

“Yeah,” CJ said, frowning at how her own voice sounded so weak. “And I’m all right, really.” She wasn’t all right. It was a lie. She wanted to cry. But she’d spent a lifetime knowing that any display of emotion by her might lead to a bad outcome, when it came to public service people. It wasn’t always cops. Firefighters and paramedics could react just as badly – and nobody needed that. So, CJ slowly gestured toward Jay. “This is my best friend, Jay Redwing. He needs help. And he doesn’t like it when strangers touch him.” Ordinarily, CJ would’ve hoped that a professional paramedic would be able to tell that Jay was obviously having problems with overstimulation. CJ figured all that should be obvious to any paramedic, but CJ didn’t feel like taking chances and having to try to calm Jay down all over again because Victoria decided to grab him or to do something equally stupid. Victoria gave what CJ could only assume was a pre-prepped smile; there was no reason for anyone to smile. She was trying to soothe them. It wasn’t working. She and the other paramedic — CJ learned by listening that his name was Jeff Rory — kept asking the same questions over and over, about what hurt or didn’t hurt, about what felt one way or another, about their sensory awareness and on and on and on. It was becoming a blur of stupidity to her. She understood the paramedics’ job was to ask these kinds of questions, but that didn’t stop it from being highly tedious. CJ answered as simply and plainly as she could; she found she was also answering for Jay, who would nod along or shake his head but wasn’t saying anything more at this point. She was pretty sure shock really had set in on Jay’s brain. It didn’t help the situation that the paramedics kept giving Jay the kinds of sympathetic looks usually reserved for people who get uncomfortable around ‘the disabled.’ It was clear the two paramedics either knew how Jay was considered around town or were making the same assumptions themselves. As she realized this, CJ was doubly upset she hadn’t thought to make him take his morning medication in front of her earlier in the day. And she stayed upset as the paramedics’ questions seemed to go on and on, to the point where CJ wasn’t even paying attention to any of them, any more. She’d become inured to the input, and it had just turned into noise. It was babble to her at this point. Eventually, though, Victoria walked away from them and toward Falke, where the paramedic spoke to the policeman in hushed tones. CJ took the moment to approach Rick.

He looked at her, barely seeming to register her presence even as he looked right at her. “Did you see him?” he asked CJ. His voice was hoarse, his pallor sickly. “I saw him.”

“Mickey? Yeah.” CJ didn’t even want to look at Rick. Disgust roiled through her.

“Not Mickey,” Rick’s whispered voice was frantic. “The other one. The weird kid. The raccoon kid!”

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Published inpart 1

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