Story: The Summation of Life
When Kelly Osborne wakes, the brown furry face looking back at her from above is a happy surprise. Black smooth eyes, whiskers, an innocent expression. It takes her a few moments to remember the origin of this presence, now the apartment's third occupant. (Douglas, the overfed gray tabby, would be the second.) She reaches up to her headboard and strokes the stuffed animal's face--the only velvet in her life. It's safe up here on its narrow wooden perch, safe from the too-fat Douglas. It probably seems ridiculous, a thirty-year-old woman with an inanimate otter on her headboard. Of course, it was a gift from--and not a replacement for--Kenichi. "You otter be happy," he'd joked, presenting her with this most bizarre of farewell gifts. With wet eyes, Kelly had been able to reply, "Otter I?" That was, what, three weeks ago? Four? Time has a way of doing that, days running together when they need to. When the heart needs it. Eighteen months seemed to run together when her brother Adam got sick, and never got un-sick. A painful drag followed--paperwork and procedures run through on autopilot. A dark gelatinous mess, a sorrowful ooze sticking to everything she ever knew. Thank you, Leukemia. In her small kitchen, watching particles of rain fall to the tune of an Italian roast brewing, she contemplates a yogurt or a PB bagel. Birds flit about the ground, the thin patch of woods between hers and the next building. Two trees across, it seems to be enough real estate for the birds. From the kitchen table, sprawled almost illicitly, Douglas offers a contemplative meow. He's calling the mother ship again, Send more catnip. Kelly rubs his jowls, the simple act of providing happiness. At least Kenichi didn't give her a stuffed beaver. That would've been a sick joke.
The call came early to her desk, so Kelly jumped right into a squad car and made the drive in eight minutes. Lights going, siren barks in intersections. The Starbucks parking lot occupies a large corner of a busy intersection. Why can't crime and incident happen here? They can happen anywhere there's people, she reasons. The awkwardly tall Harris is rolling out yellow tape, wrapping it twice around the utility pole in one corner. A singular swear word drops with a heavy thud in Kelly's brain. It takes effort not to say it aloud. As if, even from inside her cruiser, this utterance would stand out like a fart in a crowded classroom. The scene spread out before her, contained within twisting lengths of yellow tape, is something that obviously shouldn't have happened. A mistake. Avoidable. Aren't they all. The paramedics work with a steady lack of urgency. It's obviously too late. A pearl-white Cadillac SUV is parked askew, door open and lights on. Twenty feet away, a distraught blond woman chews her fingernail. Trembling. The perpetrator. Kelly thanks Harris quietly and ducks under the tape. Stepping forward into a micro-world of incorrect angles, she takes in the cherry-red sparkled paint of the motorized scooter. Part of the motor case has been separated from the body--this crescent shape itself enough indication of error in the world. The scooter, like its owner, has been crushed. The medics have been joined by a white-haired man in scrubs and a jacket who is obscuring her view. "Good morning," she says quietly--though it is obviously not one--as a way of parting bodies. "Sergeant Osborne," she adds, hiding a sharp intake of breath. The victim is a thirtyish woman with a plain face and frizzy brown hair. Her gray windbreaker has magenta piping. This and the red of her scooter should've made her hard to miss. But they didn't. "The truck crushed her windpipe and spine," the doctor says. "I came out as soon as I heard it, but..." Kelly nods, gratitude for information. Checking for approval, one of the medics draws the white sheet up over the woman's head. Harris' partner comes closer, taking photos. The documentation must be correct, complete. The deceased woman's purse, placed on her still form, gives up the usual information. "Shelly Ann Smith. Thirty years old, last week," Kelly reads aloud. It seems important, if momentarily, that this person has a name, an identifier. Off to the left is the woman's hot beverage, flung wide during the collision. Somehow, the top stayed on when it landed in a thorny hedge. Another impossibility--a gift to one's self survived an event the 'one' did not. She must've flown out of that parking spot, Kelly surmises, eyeing the driver of the white SUV. With a deep breath to keep herself level--this conversation will not bear the fruit of meaningful answers--she approaches the driver.
Back at the Department, when Marquez strolls by with his thermos of 4:45 coffee--too late in the day for Kelly--she leans toward him. He stops right away, always a friendly one for his 55 years and salty mustache. She's never even seen him angry enough to raise his voice. "If you were in a scooter, what would make you cross the parking lot instead of the sidewalk?" "Oh, I heard," he replies. After a sip, he offers, "Convenience? Shorter path?" "Yeah, but there were proper ramps." He shrugs. "Doesn't stop people. Motorized, right?" Kelly nods. "I ballpark it at seven seconds. That's how much time she'd save by crossing the lot instead of staying on the go-around path. I don't get it." "Seven seconds is enough for a car accident, for sure. Life and death. So the driver didn't see her?" "Or just didn't look. Late to meet the dog-scrubber or something." "Hmm. Backup camera?" "Yes." Marquez sips his coffee. "What a waste. Maybe the scrubber scrubs more than the dogs." Kelly almost smiles. "Dark." He shrugs. "No pool boys in this town, not with our weather." "True, true. Honestly, there's no 'good' explanation for this kind of thing, is there?" "Nope. Why they pay us with Twizzlers and cheap certificates." Kelly nods, returning to her assortment of pastel-hued forms. To her right is one of the framed service citations Marquez was referring to. 'Excellent' and 'Value' and 'Commendation' thrown together in fancy script from a laser-jet printer--inadequate for the most difficult species of phone call in her sphere. I'm afraid I have some bad news. What was the point of asking them to hurry over from Poulsbo? What was done was done. Rushing in wouldn't undo anything. Cool your cape, Superman. Isn't that what Adam would've said?
Kelly eyes the high-ceiling light bulb above her washer-dryer combo. It gave her a few days of lavender warning--Pay attention to me--before going out. The last time, a couple years ago, she changed it with her fingertips from her singular coffee table book of Thailand atop a kitchen chair. This time, she should borrow a ladder. Maybe the cute guy down the hall--Chadwick?--has a six-foot she can borrow. She's a cop. Can she play off the damsel-in-distress angle somehow? A Friday night spent doing laundry seems awfully pathetic, though no alternative sounds appealing. Right now, some of her friends are dancing at bars, one or two others are having sex in random if safe domestic locations. Kelly can't even decide if she wants to try a new series on Netflix. She pulls her college-era sweatshirt from the drum, loosing a spectral dryer sheet, and sets it on the floor by the couch. Back at the dryer, she hears a contented meow and knows, without looking, Douglas has discovered this heavenly-warm pile of cotton. All she can do these days is make a furry prince happy, it seems. The sentiment is echoed when she sorts an armload of laundry into dresser drawers. Here's a pretty pair of undies--daisies on blue. She's always thought they deserve an audience of more than one. She sighs and changes into a T-shirt and shorts, forgoing a set of proper satin pajamas. Things must have a purpose to exist. Otherwise, what's the point? Tomorrow she'll go to the station and slog through some less-than-urgent paperwork, waiting on the parents of Shelly Ann Smith to announce they're in town. This will be followed by quiet voices, tears, a lead-boot trip to the morgue, perhaps a stop at the scene of the accident--all in no particular order. It will likely all run together, anyway. The kitchen radio host announces that it's another block-party weekend and kicks it off with a happy woman's voice requesting The Floyd. A simple guitar melody starts up, washed through an old-school amplifier. Why did they want the beginning to sound so old-school? she wonders. She could look it up, she supposes. All questions and mysteries could be solved via a pixelated screen these days. All that comes to mind, though, is that the song's a tribute of sorts to guitarist Syd Barrett, who went cuckoo. Adding water and coffee grounds to the machine for tomorrow's brew has become like ritual--repetitive to the point that it never changes. When Kenichi came over for the night--and they were sweet nights--it simply meant more water and coffee going in. Douglas chases a poltergeist under the sweatshirt's arm. Kelly's mind wanders to the stuffed otter, to its potential fate if she tossed it to the cat. Would it mean any more than a mess for her to clean up later? Cats are lousy housemates. Can't even empty the dishwasher. "We're just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl, year after year. Running over the same old ground, what have we found?" She reaches for the phone.
"Really, thank you for calling," Mattie had said. Her sister-in-law's voice always had such a warm earnestness that imagining what she went through seems extra painful, egregious even. "We have to hold onto it whenever we can, you know? It's...it's fleeting." Lying in bed, studying the darkened ceiling, Kelly wonders what the it Mattie referred to is. Humanity, maybe. After hanging up, Kelly started scrolling her calendar for an opening in her nieces' school schedule to go visit them. Something good, something positive. One day next week, there will be a memorial service. And if it rains, it will be like an assault on decency. And I'll have to go, regardless. She can picture it clearly. Words and sniffles, disappointingly empty in a church. Pledges of reassurance that things work out the way God intended, that the sun will shine again, that Shelly Ann Smith was a good person who will be missed. "She could've been a raging alcoholic who terrorized her coworkers about composting habits and budgets, for all I know," she says aloud. It immediately seems ridiculous in retrospect, a voiced thought offered to the upstairs resident at 1:17 am. From the kitchen, Douglas crunches kibbles noisily against the phantom light rain. Or is it wind? Does wind happen during the night, when nobody's around to feel it on their face? 'Hot air for a cool breeze. Cold comfort for change.' I'm gonna go crazy over that damned song, she thinks. Maybe she doesn't have to go to the memorials service. Maybe she doesn't have to stick her face in it--the emptiness that will remain. Will she risk loosening the threads any further? The ones that bind us all together in so-called humanity? Another glance at the clock, a pitch change in the wind. A late flight coming in.
At 1:35, it doesn't seem like enough. The weather and paperwork and coffee and music and Kenichi's happy thrusting and quiet nights and school shootings and picture-gazing and sighs all roll into one. How the days' weak rain heralds green buds trying desperately to break free of winter's slumber. But--like chemotherapy drugs or purple warning hues or new brake pads--the rain isn't strong enough to defer disaster, or wash anything away.