James rocks in his seat the entire way to Santa Monica. Elizabeth sits beside him, holding his hand. Michael sits on the other side of him, staring stoically out the window.
“I need you to stay in the car,” Detective Oliver says from the driver’s seat. “I mean it this time. We don’t know what we’re getting into. Officer Grady is a trained professional. We know there are at least two others involved. They could be trained, too. If any of you take a single step out of this car, I will have you arrested. Do you understand?”
Nobody answers her.
“I said do you understand!”
“Got it,” Michael says, not taking his eyes off the road.
They pull up a little way away from the docks. She turns off the engine and radios the other police cars.
“We’re here,” she says into the radio on the dash. “Do not approach. I repeat: Do not approach. We’re going to check it out.”
She replaces the radio and turns towards the back seat of the car.
“I’m going to say it one more time,” she says. “Stay. Here.”
She unbuckles her seatbelt and opens the door. A cool breeze blows into the car. James shivers.
Detective Roberts follows her outside. They slam the car doors shut. James watches them walk towards the boat sheds lined up on the other side of the dock. A dull ache blooms in the pit of his stomach. He ignores it.
They begin to fade into the shadows. He strains his eyes to see them and reaches for his seat belt.
“Don’t,” Michael says, putting his hand over James’, stopping him. “You’re not going anywhere.” He locks the door beside him. His mom does the same.
James pulls his hand away.
A gunshot cracks through the air.
James unbuckles his seatbelt and flings himself over Michael’s legs. He unlocks the door and is out of the car before Michael even knows what is happening.
“James!” Michael screams. “JAMES!!”
“SHOTS FIRED! SHOTS FIRED!!” someone yells over the radio in the car. “ALL UNITS PROCEED WITH CAUTION.”
James runs blindly towards the sound of the gunshot, fear and desperation giving him strength where he had none.
“Alexander,” he mumbles. “Alexander. Alexander. ALEXANDER!! ALEXANDER!! ALEXANDER!!”
He sees a figure crouched behind one of the boat sheds and propels himself towards it, not even caring who it is, not even caring if it is someone who will help him or hurt him. All he cares about is Alexander.
I’m coming, buddy, he thinks, breathing erratically. I’m coming for you.
The figure falls to the ground.
Sirens begin to wail. His heart feels like it is pumping sludge. Still he runs, straight past the bleeding figure, weaving through the boat sheds, straining his ears to locate the source of the chaos.
Detective Roberts is standing in front of a man, aiming his gun at his chest. Detective Oliver lies on the ground a few feet away. She’s missing half her face.
“Tell me where the boy is,” Detective Roberts says, cocking the gun. “It’s over, Grady. There’s no escaping this. Just let the boy go.”
James slows to a stop. He hangs in the shadows, watching. Listening. They haven’t seen him yet.
Answer him, he pleads silently. Tell him. Tell me.
Officer Grady laughs. He sounds deranged. His hands hang limply by his side. He has no weapon.
“I’m going to kill that kid,” he says, grinning. “And I’m going to shove his head on a stick and pike it in Axton’s front lawn.”
James very nearly passes out, but he holds on. He holds on for Alexander.
“Why would you do this??” Detective Roberts asks. “I’ve known you for years, Grady! I’ve been to your house, our kids went to the same school, our boys were on the same foot…ball…team…” He stops. The gun wavers.
“Oh,” Grady says, sneering. “You remembered now, huh? Funny how quickly those things fade. This, for example, will be a distant memory for you in a year. But Axton…Axton will never forget.”
“Grady,” Detective Roberts says quietly. “Simon. This isn’t…This isn’t going to make you feel better. This isn’t going to bring him back.”
“HER,” Grady snarls. “It isn't going to bring HER back. Kids can be cruel, right?? That’s what the school told us. Kids will be kids. Your son can’t expect to show up here looking like that and not get teased. This isn’t one of those progressive schools.” Grady laughs bitterly and shakes his head. “I’m a cop. I’m a fucking COP but I couldn’t protect her. I couldn’t protect her.”
“Simon,” Detective Roberts says, taking an infinitesimal step forward. “What happened to Eli…”
“ELLA,” Grady corrects.
“Ella,” Detective agrees, taking another step. “What happened to her was horrific. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to go through that. But the boys responsible…They’re in juvie now. And once they hit twenty-one they’ll go straight to Rikers. They’re never getting out. Ever. We got them. You got them.”
Grady shakes his head and looks up at the sky. “Yeah,” he says bitterly. “Too late.”
Detective Roberts takes another step. He is just a few feet away now.
“She wouldn’t want you to do this,” he says, surreptitiously reaching for his hand cuffs. “She wouldn’t want to be remembered this way.”
“She shouldn’t have to be remembered at all,” Grady spits. “If it wasn’t for pieces of shit like Axton making a mockery of people like Ella, people who are different, then maybe this wouldn’t have happened. Maybe Ella would have been accepted instead of, instead of-” he gasps, choking back a sob. His hands shake.
“Well,” he says, taking a sharp breath in and running his hand through his hair. “I lost my child. Now Axton will know what that feels like. Maybe if a big name celebrity feels the pain of losing a child over this, things will start to change. This is how it begins. There is no change without loss.”
“Simon. He’s just a kid. He just turned eight. He hasn’t even lived yet. You can’t…You can’t seriously…”
Grady’s eyes narrow into slits. “Ella was sixteen,” he spits. “She hadn’t lived yet, either.”
He turns around.
“GRADY!” Detective Roberts shouts. “Do not move or I will shoot!”
Grady looks back over his shoulder. “Shoot me, then,” he says. “It won’t help you save him.”
What little remained of James’ sanity
d i s s o l v e s.
He throws himself out of the shadows and sprints towards Grady. Adrenalin lubricates his limbs, temporarily numbing the pain of movement.
“WHERE THE FUCK IS HE??” James screams, launching himself at Grady and tackling him to the ground. Grady is taken by surprise and falls back.
“TELL ME WHERE HE IS OR I WILL KILL YOU, YOU SON OF A BITCH!!” James dives on top of him and punches him in the face. A mixture of blood, spit and snot coats his knuckles. He doesn’t care. He can’t care.
A third gunshot.
Several people start yelling. Some small part of him is vaguely aware of footsteps approaching him. Something hits him in the back of the head, sending him flying off Grady. He sees Detective Roberts curled over on the ground, clutching his stomach. Thick ribbons of blood ooze between his fingers.
Somebody kicks him in the face, blurring his vision. He sees Grady stand up. Walk over to Detective Roberts. Pick up his gun.
A fourth gunshot.
Detective Roberts goes limp.
James tries to stand up, but he can’t. Everything hurts.
Grady walks over to him. He hears the gun cock.
I’ll see you soon, buddy, he thinks, closing his eyes. At least we’ll be together now.
His heart stutters inside his chest.
He wonders if it will hurt.
No, he thinks. Nothing will hurt as much as losing him.
He holds his breath.
Something hits him in the chest. The pain takes his breath away. For a moment he tries to fight against it, tries to pull himself to his feet, but his brain doesn’t seem to be connected to any of his limbs. He stops struggling. Darkness creeps over him, rocking him, calling him, pulling him in.
He lets it have him.