Dawn broke over Peachtree Street. The sun razored open the downtown corridor, slicing past the construction cranes waiting to dip into the earth and pull up skyscrapers, hotels, convention centers. Frost spiderwebbed across the parks. Fog drifted through the streets. Trees slowly straightened their spines. The wet, ripe meat of the city lurched toward the November light.
The only sound was footsteps.
Heavy slaps echoed between the buildings as Jimmy Lawson's police-issue boots pounded the pavement. Sweat poured from his skin. His left knee wanted to give. His body was a symphony of pain. Every muscle was a plucked piano wire. His teeth gritted like a sand block. His heart was a snare drum.
The black granite Equitable Building cast a square shadow as he crossed Pryor Street. How many blocks had Jimmy gone? How many more did he have to go?
Don Wesley was thrown over his shoulder like a sack of flour. Fireman's carry. Harder than it looked. Jimmy's shoulder was ablaze. His spine drilled into his tailbone. His arm trembled from the effort of keeping Don's legs clamped to his chest. The man could already be dead. He wasn't moving. His head tapped into the small of Jimmy's back as he barreled down Edgewood faster than he'd ever carried the ball down the field. He didn't know if it was Don's blood or his own sweat that was rolling down the back of his legs, pooling into his boots.
He wouldn't survive this. There was no way a man could survive this.
The gun had snaked around the corner. Jimmy had watched it slither past the edge of a cinder-block wall. The sharp fangs of the front sights jutted up from the tip of the barrel. Raven MP-25. Six-round detachable box, blowback action, semiauto. The classic Saturday night special. Twenty-five bucks on any ghetto corner.
That's what his partner's life had come down to. Twenty-five bucks.
Jimmy faltered as he ran past First Atlanta Bank. His left knee almost touched the asphalt. Only adrenaline and fear saved him from falling. Quick bursts of recall kept setting off colorful fireworks in his head: Red shirtsleeve bunched up around a yellow-gold wristwatch. Black-gloved hand holding the white pearl grip. The rising sun had bathed the weapon's dark steel in a bluish light. It didn't seem right that something black could have a glint to it, but the gun had almost glowed.
And then the finger pulled back on the trigger.
Jimmy knew the workings of a gun. The 25's slide was already racked, cartridge in the chamber. The trigger spring engaged the firing pin. The firing pin hit the primer. The primer ignited the gunpowder. The bullet flew from the chamber. The casing popped out of the ejection port.
Don's head exploded.
Jimmy's memory did no work to raise the image. The violence was etched into his corneas, backdropped every time he blinked. Jimmy was looking at Don, then he was looking at the gun, then he was looking at how the side of Don's face had distorted into the color and texture of a rotten piece of fruit.
The gun had jammed. Otherwise, Jimmy wouldn't be running down the street right now. He would be face down in an alley beside Don, condoms and cigarette butts and needles sticking to their skin.
Gilmer Street. Courtland. Piedmont. Three more blocks. His knee could hold out for three more blocks.
Jimmy had never been on the business end of a firing gun. The flash was an explosion of starlight—millions of pinpricked pieces of sun lighting up the dark alley. His eardrums rang with the sound. His eyes stung from the cordite. At the same time, he felt the splash against his skin, like hot water, only he knew—he knew—it was blood and bone and pieces of flesh hitting his chest, his neck, his face. He tasted it on his tongue. Crunched the bone between his teeth.
Don Wesley's blood. Don Wesley's bone.
He was blinded by it.
When Jimmy was a kid, his mother used to make him take his sister to the pool. She was so little back then. Her skinny, pale legs and arms poking out of her tiny suit reminded Jimmy of a baby praying mantis. In the water, he'd cup his hands together, tell her he'd caught a bug. She was a girl, but she loved looking at bugs. She'd paddle over to see, and Jimmy would squeeze his hands together so the water would squirt into her face. She would scream and scream. Sometimes she would cry, but he'd still do it again the next time they were in the pool. Jimmy told himself it was all right because she kept falling for it. The problem wasn't that he was cruel. The problem was that she was stupid.
Where was she now? Safe in bed, he hoped. Fast asleep, he prayed. She was on the job, too. His little sister. It wasn't safe. Jimmy could end up carrying her through the streets one day. He could be jostling her limp body, careening around the corner, his knee brushing the blacktop as the torn ligaments clashed like cymbals.
Jimmy saw a glowing sign up ahead: a white field with a red cross in the center.
He wanted to weep. He wanted to fall to the ground. But his burden would not lighten. If anything, Don got heavier. The last twenty yards were the hardest of Jimmy's life.
A group of black men were congregating under the sign. They were dressed in bright purples and greens. Their tight pants flared below the knee, showing a touch of white patent leather. Thick sideburns. Pencil mustaches. Gold rings on their fingers. Cadillacs parked a few feet away. The pimps were always in front of the hospital this time of morning. They smoked skinny cigars and watched the sun rise as they waited for their girls to get patched up for the morning rush hour.
None of them offered to help the two bloody cops making their way toward the doors. They gawked. Their cigarillos stopped midair.
Jimmy fell against the glass doors. Someone had forgotten to lock them. They butterflied open. His knee slued to the side. He fell face-first into the emergency waiting room. The jolt was like a bad tackle. Don's hipbone knifed into his chest. Jimmy felt the flex of his own ribs kissing his heart.
He looked up. At least fifty pairs of eyes stared back. No one said a word. Somewhere in the bowels of the treatment area, a phone was ringing. The sound echoed through the barred doors.
The Gradys. Over a decade of civil rights hadn't done shit. The waiting room was still divided: black on one side, white on the other. Like the pimps under the sign, they all stared at Jimmy. At Don Wesley. At the river of blood flowing beneath them.
Jimmy was still on top of Don. It was a lewd scene, one man on top of another. One cop on top of another. Still, Jimmy cradled his hand to Don's face. Not the side that was blown open—the side that still looked like his partner.
"It's okay," Jimmy managed, though he knew it wasn't okay. Would never be okay. "It's all right."
Jimmy's gut twisted at the sound. He'd been sure the man was dead. "Get help," he told the crowd, but it was a whisper, a begging little girl's voice that came out of his own mouth. "Somebody get help."
Don groaned. He was trying to speak. The flesh of his cheek was gone. Jimmy could see his tongue lolling between shattered bone and teeth.
"It's okay." Jimmy's voice was still a high whistle. He looked up again. No one would meet his gaze. There were no nurses. No doctors. No one was going to get help. No one was answering the damn telephone.
Don groaned again. His tongue slacked outside of his jaw.
"It's okay," Jimmy repeated. Tears streamed down his face. He felt sick and dizzy. "It's gonna be okay."
Don inhaled sharply, like he was surprised. He held the air in his lungs for a few seconds before finally letting out a low, baleful moan. Jimmy felt the sound vibrating in his chest. Don's breath was sour—the smell of a soul leaving the body. The color of his flesh didn't drain so much as fill like a pitcher of cold buttermilk. His lips turned an earthy, funereal blue. The fluorescent lights cut white stripes into the flat green of his irises.
Jimmy felt a darkness pass through him. It gripped his throat, then slowly reached its icy fingers into his chest. He opened his mouth for air, then forced it closed for fear that Don's ghost would flow into him.
Somewhere, the phone was still ringing.
"She-it," a raspy old woman grumbled. "Doctor ain't never gone get to me now."
Maggie Lawson was upstairs in her bedroom when she heard the phone ringing in the kitchen. She checked her watch. There was nothing good about a phone ringing this early in the morning. Sounds from the kitchen echoed up the back stairs: The click of the receiver being lifted from the cradle. The low murmur of her mother's voice. The sharp snap of the phone cord slapping the floor as she walked back and forth across the kitchen.
The linoleum had been worn away in staggered gray lines from the countless times Delia Lawson had paced the kitchen listening to bad news.
The conversation didn't last long. Delia hung up the phone. The loud click echoed up to the rafters. Maggie knew every sound the old house made. She had spent a lifetime studying its moods. Even from her room, she could follow her mother's movements through the kitchen: The refrigerator door opening and closing. A cabinet banging shut. Eggs being cracked into a bowl. Thumb flicking her Bic to light a cigarette.
Maggie knew how this would go. Delia had been playing Bad-News Blackjack for as long as Maggie could remember. She would hold for a while, but then tonight, tomorrow, or maybe even a week from now, Delia would pick a fight with Maggie and the minute Maggie opened her mouth to respond, her mother would lay down her cards: the electric bill was past due, her shifts at the diner had been cut, the car needed a new transmission, and here Maggie was making things worse by talking back and for the love of God, couldn't she give her mother a break?
Busted. Dealer wins.
Maggie screeched the ironing board closed. She stepped carefully around folded stacks of laundry. She'd been up since five that morning doing the family's ironing. She was Sisyphus in a bathrobe. They all had uniforms of one kind or another. Lilly wore green-and-blue-checkered skirts and yellow button-down tops to school. Jimmy and Maggie had their dark blue pants and long-sleeved shirts from the Atlanta Police Department. Delia had her green polyester smocks from the diner. And then they all came home and changed into regular clothes, which meant that every day, Maggie was washing and ironing for eight people instead of four.
She only complained when no one could hear her.
There was a scratching sound from Lilly's room as she dropped the needle on a record. Maggie gritted her teeth. Tapestry. Lilly played the album incessantly.
Not too long ago, Maggie helped Lilly get dressed for school every morning. At night, they would page through Brides magazine and clip out pictures for their dream weddings. That was all before Lilly turned thirteen years old and her life, much like Carole King's, became an everlasting vision of the ever-changing hue.
She waited for Jimmy to bang on the wall and tell Lilly to turn that crap off, but then she remembered her brother had picked up a night shift. Maggie looked out the window. Jimmy's car wasn't in the driveway. Unusually, the neighbor's work van was gone. She wondered if he was working the night shift, too. And then she chastened herself for wondering, because it was none of her business what her neighbor was doing.
Now seemed as good a time as any to go down for breakfast. Maggie pulled the foam rollers from her hair as she walked down the stairs. She stopped exactly in the middle. The acoustic sweet spot. Tapestry disappeared. There were no sounds from the kitchen. If Maggie timed it right, she could sometimes grab a full minute of silence standing on the stairs. There wouldn't be another time during her day when she felt so completely alone.
She took a deep breath, then slowly let it out before continuing down.
The old Victorian had been grand at one point, though the house retained no evidence of its former glory. Pieces of siding were gone. Rotted wood hung like bats from the gables. The windows rattled with the slightest breeze. Rain shot a creek through the basement. There was no outlet in the house that didn't have a black tattoo ghosted around it from bad fuses and shoddy workmanship.
Even though it was winter, the kitchen was humid. No matter the time of year, it always smelled of fried bacon and cigarette smoke. The source of both stood at the stove. Delia's back was bent as she filled the percolator. When Maggie thought of her mother, she thought of this kitchen—the faded avocado-green appliances, the cracked yellow linoleum on the floor, the burned, black ridges on the laminate countertop where her father rested his cigarettes.
As usual, Delia had been up since before Maggie. No one knew what Delia did in the morning hours. Probably curse God that she'd woken up in the same house with the same problems. There was an unwritten rule that you didn't go downstairs until you heard eggs being whisked in a bowl. Delia always cooked a big breakfast, a holdover from her Depression childhood, when breakfast might be the only meal of the day.
"Lilly up?" Delia hadn't turned around, but she knew Maggie was there.
"For now." Maggie made the same offer she did every morning. "Can I do anything?"
"No." Delia jabbed the bacon with a fork. "Driveway's empty next door."
Maggie glanced out the window, pretending she didn't already know Lee Grant's van was not parked in its usual spot.
Delia said, "All we need is for girls to start going in and out of that house at all hours. Again."
Maggie leaned against the counter. Delia looked exhausted. Even her stringy brown hair couldn't be bothered to stay pinned on the top of her head. They'd all been picking up extra shifts to pay for Lilly to go to a private school. None of them wanted to see her bussed across town to the ghetto. They had four more years of tuition and textbooks and uniforms before Lilly graduated. Maggie wasn't sure her mother would last that long.