Carolyn LaRoche - The Line That Binds

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Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Epilogue Acknowledgments About the Author Also by Carolyn LaRoche

This is a work of fiction. All people, places and events are products of the author's imagination and are used in a story of fiction. None of the contents should be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locations, organizations or persons, alive or deceased, is completely coincidental. The Line That Binds Copyright 2019 Carolyn LaRoche All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any method, electronic or print without written permission, with exception of brief quotations for the purpose of reviews.

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For my sisters in blue. There is strength in our numbers.

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.



"Hello, ladies." Even after so many years together, Eleanor's husband could still kick her heartrate up a notch just with the deep bass of his voice. "Hey, Gary," Eleanor's best friend Vivian waved a burrito. "Eat something before you go. There's plenty." "Hi, Gary." Marietta, the youngest of the three and the newest member of their little friend group, picked up a chip and dipped it in some queso. Gary crossed the kitchen and leaned down to kiss Eleanor on the cheek. She stood up and turned in to his arms. "Oh, no you don't, Officer. I want the good stuff." Eleanor giggled as Gary held her close and

dipped her like an old-style movie, kissing her on the lips. When she stood upright again, she slid her arms up his chest and behind his neck. "Get a room!" Vivian laughed, shooting bits of rice and cheese out of her mouth. "You're just jealous." Eleanor stepped back, fanning herself with her fingertips. She the blew a little kiss to her friend. "You only wish Antonio had half the moves my man has." "Yeah, you could be right about that." Vivian frowned. "This here burrito might be the closest thing to an orgasm I've had in ages." "Viv!" Marietta turned a dark shade of red as she put a hand over her mouth and nodded toward Gary. "Shh!" "What?" Vivian gave Marietta her best innocent look, complete with batting eyelashes. "My husband works a lot of hours." "What are you ladies up to this afternoon?" Gary opened the refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of water. Eleanor removed the clip from her hair, regathered the hair and clipped it once more. "oh, you know. Girl talk. Margaritas." "You should try some. It's so good." Vivian took another bite of her food, moaning at the same time then chased it with a swallow of her margarita. "That is the last time I feed you!" Marietta tried to grab the burrito from Vivian but Vivian was

quicker—shoving the rest in her mouth all at once. "That's my Abuella's recipe and you're ruining it!" "Gee, Mari, it's just food." Vivian stuck her rice and beans covered tongue out at the other woman. "Disgusting." Mari wrinkled her nose. "Tan infantile." "It looks delicious." Gary pulled a dish from the cabinet. "I'm gonna fix myself a plate before I have to get ready for work. Ricky's on tonight too, right?" Marietta scowled. "Of course, he is. I swear I feel like I'm the other woman to that job. You and Antonio see him so much more than I do." Gary grabbed a spoon from the drawer and scooped up some rice. "It's normal, Marietta. New officers often get so caught up in the job that they forget there are other things in their life. If you want, I'll have a talk with him." Marietta waved a hand in the air. "Go ahead if you want. It's not gonna matter. I talk until I'm blue in the face and he doesn't hear a word. It's been almost three years. He should be over it already. If I'd known this was what it would be like, I'd have stayed in the city with my momma." Eleanor wrapped an arm around her friend's shoulder. "I know it's not easy. The first five years are the hardest. If you make past those, you'll be a seasoned veteran wife like us. Right, Viv?" She pointed at Vivian who currently held a spoonful of

rice and beans to her lips as she chewed the rest of her burrito. "Mmm hmm." Vivian swallowed and took the next bite. "I'm gonna hate myself tomorrow. I can just feel it." "Should we leave you alone with that?" Eleanor asked. Vivian responded by shoving yet another spoonful in her mouth. Gary nodded. "Eleanor's right. I've seen it over and over again. That five year mark is totally like a switch that flips. That's when cops go from 'gung ho, gonna save the world' to 'I just want to make it through the night and get home to my family'." "Yeah, well the way things are going, he's never going to have that family if he doesn't spend some time at home." A stray tear slid down Marietta's cheek. She reached up and swiped at it. "Aw, Mari." Eleanor squeezed her friend lightly in a side hug. "It really does get better." "I'm just extra emotional right now. The doctor gave me some new meds to try and straighten out my messed-up self. Maybe if my husband would spend a couple of hours with me this weekend, we might be able to make something of it." Gary stood at the counter dishing more food onto his plate. "Do you want me to tell the sergeant to make him take a night off this week?" Marietta shrugged. "Not that I'd ever interfere with his job, but I won't complain if you do."

"You got it." Gary picked up his plate, stopped to give Eleanor another kiss then headed to the family room. Marietta sighed and rested her chin on her folded arms on the table. "Why can't Ricky be like Gary? You're so lucky, Ellie. He's handsome, kind, romantic, and obviously loves you to the moon and back." "Yeah, and housebroken too." Vivian scooped some salsa up with a chip. "You done good, girl." Eleanor laughed. "You don't think he was always like this, do you? It's taken years of training." "You should offer classes. You know how to train your husband." Vivian popped another chip in her mouth. "You are too much, Viv." Eleanor brought the pitcher of margaritas to the table and refilled her glass. She held it up. "Anyone else need a refill?" Marietta sighed dramatically as she pushed her glass across the table. "Might as well. Not like I have any reason not to." Eleanor filled Marietta's glass then topped off Vivian's. Vivian waved her hands in front of the glass. "That's it. That has to be my last one. I gotta get home later." "Don't worry, I got the ride share app already to go on my phone." Eleanor laughed and reached for

the bowl of salsa. Vivian wrapped her arms around the chips and salsa. "You can't have it. Mari's homemade salsa is the bomb and I don't want to share." "I'll make more. I'll give you a gallon of it for Christmas." Marietta tried to unlock Vivian's hold on the dishes. Vivian flopped back against her chair, grabbing her drink in the process and taking a long sip. "Fine." Eleanor pulled the bowls in close and made a big production out of eating several chips. "Pass the queso over here too." Marietta slid it across the table. "You remember that barbeque last summer?" "Yeah," Eleanor said. "It was the perfect day. All the guys were off. Everyone was relaxed and just had a good time." "That was the last time Ricky and I had sex without planning it on the calendar." Vivian spit out a mouthful of margarita, spraying the liquid all over her shirt and the table. "You schedule sex?" Marietta shrugged and took a sip of her drink. "Like you said earlier, my husband also works a lot of hours." "Yeah, but I was joking." Vivian reached for the chips. "Give me back my salsa." Eleanor reached over and gave her friend's

hand a squeeze. "It's okay, Mari. All marriages go through dry patches." "Not you and Mr. Perfect Romance." Eleanor shot Vivian a shut up or I'll lock you in a closet look. "Like I said, all marriages have dry patches." Vivian finished off her drink and refilled it. "We've had to be pretty creative at times, with Tony around, but me and Antonio are very spontaneous. He's a real Italian Stallion." The kitchen fell silent as Eleanor and Marietta looked at their friend. "What?" Vivian looked back at her friends. "It's genetic. Italians know how to ride. Or, be ridden? Whichever one it is." All three women dissolved in laughter. Eleanor laughed so hard her side hurt. Marietta developed a case of hiccups. Vivian had tears rolling down her face and Eleanor was doubled over when Gary strolled back into the kitchen. "Seems like you ladies went a little heavy on the tequila and maybe forgot the mixer this time." Eleanor wiped at the tears that had formed from her laughter. Gary stood at the sink, placing his dish in it, fully dressed in his uniform. She frowned. "You got dressed already?" He leaned down and kissed her. "You and the girls were having so much fun I didn't want to bother you. It's all good. I know how to dress

myself." Eleanor frowned. "It just feels weird, breaking the routine. I always strap your vest on for good luck." "Well, now you can walk me to the door and give me a proper goodbye kiss for luck instead this time." He leaned in close and whispered, "and maybe I'll get a little boob grab in for extra luck." Eleanor felt the heat rise in her face as her husband grinned and winked. "I'll be right back, girls." Eleanor stood and followed Gary from the room. "Don't rush back on our account!" Vivian called. "Give that man something to think about in his cruiser late at night!" "She's so lucky," Eleanor heard Marietta say. The wistfulness in her voice worried Eleanor. They reached the door but Gary didn't open it. Instead, he took her hand and tugged her in between him and the heavy wood. "I'd like to do a whole lot more than kiss you goodbye but I'm gonna be late for line up if I do." "Wake me up when you get home." Eleanor ran her fingers through the short hair at his neck. "You know what tequila does to me." Gary grinned. "Like the song says; it makes all your clothes fall off. Damn. Now I am tempted to call out." Eleanor stood on tip toe and kissed him. "Go.

Play hero. I'll be here when you get home." "I love you, baby. See you soon." "I love you too. Stay safe and come home to me." "Always." They did and said the same things at the start of every shift from Gary's first day on the streets. Cops were superstitious. At least Gary had become that way. He liked everything to be the same. He opened the door and left. Eleanor watched him from the window until his truck pulled out of the driveway. His patrol car was in the shop so he had to use a pool car for a few days which meant he took his own truck to work. Even that felt wrong. When she returned to the kitchen, Vivian and Marietta had full glasses and full plates once more. "I thought you weren't having any more drinks?" Eleanor pointed at Vivian's glass. "I figured we'd try out that new app you downloaded." She raised her glass. "Cheers." "Shop with a Cop is in two weeks. Are Gary and Antonio volunteering?" Marietta asked as she rolled her burrito tighter, trapping lettuce and cheese that had tried to escape. "Gary always does. He's one of the founding officers of the event," Eleanor replied. "He says watching kids spend the money they are gifted on everyone but themselves reminds him that there is

still good in this world, despite the evil he sees all the time." "Of course, he is." Marietta exhaled heavily. "Gary really is the perfect man." "Antonio is a founder too." Vivian lumped sour cream on her burrito. "And he's a complete pain in my ass." "Yeah, but he's Italian so it's genetic," Eleanor teased, knowing full well her best friend had also been born of two Italian parents. Eleanor's phone jingled in her pocket. She pulled it out and saw a text from Gary. Just wanted to say I love you baby. Love you too. She typed quickly then stuffed the phone back in her pocket. "How's Tony's season going?" Eleanor took a sip of her drink. Vivian got up and refilled her own glass. "I can't believe he is a senior. There are so many colleges looking at him." "That's fantastic." "What about the twins?" Marietta asked. "Won't they be home for Thanksgiving soon?" "About a week." Eleanor pointed to the refrigerator. "I've got to get to the store. They'll starve if I don't. Gary and I don't buy a fraction of the groceries we did when they were home." Vivian nodded her agreement. "Tell me about it. I almost need a second mortgage to keep Tony fed.

Has it been hard having Jameson and Jackson gone? I'm not ready to have an empty nest." "We thought we might hate it but, honestly, with Gary set to retire once they graduate, we're kind of looking forward to the freedom to do what we want." "I really hope I have that problem someday." Marietta sighed and took a long sip of her margarita. "My nest feels like it will never be full let alone empty again." "You'll get there." Eleanor squeezed her hand. "You two are young. You have plenty of time." "Tell that to my Abuella. She insists she had five babies and another on the way by the time she was my age." Vivian laughed. "I hope I meet your Abuella someday. I'd like to ask her what the heck she was thinking." Three hours later, Eleanor bid her friends goodbye as the Uber driver pulled up in front of her house. She hugged Marietta. "Stay strong, mi amiga. Being married to a cop isn't easy but it's totally worth it. Ricky is a good man and he'll get it all sorted. Gary'll help him along." "Thanks, Eleanor. I hope so." Marietta waved as she walked down the sidewalk. By the time she climbed in bed, it was nearly eleven. Switching on her favorite show, Law and

Order: SVU, she leaned back on her pillow. The sound of her phone ringing on the nightstand was the next thing she heard. The unique ring tone she used just for Gary cut its way through the thick fog of sleep that had barely begun to settle in. She glanced at the clock as she grabbed for it. Eleven forty-five. Gary's name flashed on the screen. It wasn't like him to call so late, or pretty much at all once he got on the streets. "Is everything okay?" she asked, trying not to sound panicked. Gary chuckled. "Hey, baby. Did I wake you?" He sounded fine, thank God. Eleanor sat up in the bed, yawning. "It's okay, I wasn't really asleep yet." "Sorry. I thought you'd still be up watching television." She could hear the tell-tale clicking in the background that told her Gary was working on his computer. "I was, before I started to doze off. You didn't answer me, is everything okay?" A burst of static sounded, accompanied by the garbled voice of a dispatcher. The sounds suddenly disappeared. Gary must have turned his radio down. "Everything is fine. I'm about to go on a warrant call with the organized crime guys. Just wanted to tell you I love you." Something still felt a little bit off. The tiny hairs on the back of her neck stood at attention, a long-

time warning to her when something was about to happen. Eleanor unsuccessfully tried to shrug it off. "I love you too. Are you sure everything is okay?" "Yeah," he said, not exactly convincing her but she decided not to push the issue any more. "I just felt like hearing your voice. Did you have fun with the girls?" She laughed. "We always have a good time. Did you tell the sergeant to make Ricky to take a night off?" Gary laughed too. "I did. He said he'd handle it. Everyone on the shift knows how Vasquez is." "Marietta is lonely." "It's tough being married to a law man. I lucked out. Got the best wife in the department." She could hear his radio in the background again. The dispatcher sounded stressed and hurried. "Busy night?" "Non-stop. Hang on, El." She heard someone else's voice in the background but couldn't make out what they were saying. Gary came back to her. "Gotta go now, baby. Love you." "Love you too. Be safe." "Always." When she went to disconnect the call, she dropped her phone on the floor. As she picked it up, she heard voices through the line. Gary must have tossed his phone on the seat beside him without ending the call. The distant echo of the

sirens on his car filtered through her phone, giving her a little spike of pride. Gary didn't have to play hero. He had been born to do that job and she loved seeing him in action. Setting the phone on speaker, she shut off the television and lay back against her pillows. The few times she'd ridden with Gary while he worked had been fun. She could almost feel his adrenaline as he handled his police car. In the background, excited voices passed over the radio. Some of them she recognized, most she didn't. The words were hard to decipher as the engine roared, matching the roar of her blood in her ears as her heart raced. Tires squealed. She sat up, gripping the phone. That didn't sound good. "Son of a bitch!" Gary's voice came through the phone. Eleanor sucked in a breath. That really didn't sound good. "You okay?" she heard someone ask. "Please be okay," she whispered when Gary didn't answer right away. The excitement of hearing him work quickly became replaced with fear and anxiety. "Yeah!" Gary responded, almost a full minute later, his car's engine racing again. "Near miss in the intersection but I'm good!" She exhaled, her lungs burning from holding the air in while she waited to hear her husband's voice.

Instead, the dispatcher's panicked one came over the line. "10-13! 10-13! Officer needs assistance!" Gary said something she couldn't quite understand. The roar of the car engine got louder. She heard the sound of the bull horn. "10-13! Atlantic and 24 th!" "3152 responding!" The adrenaline in his voice pounded through her own veins. "No…" she whispered. "Please, God, let everyone be okay." Eleanor hugged herself, held her breath, sending up more prayers. 10-13's were every officer's—and officer's wife's—worst fear. "Shots fired!" The dispatcher practically screamed. "Approach with caution! Suspect is armed and shooting." "Oh God." Eleanor pressed her hand to her mouth so Gary wouldn't hear her. "Please be careful." The scream of the brakes dueled the squeal of his tires and then, for the briefest of seconds, an eerie silence. She should have hung up earlier. Now she couldn't, even if she wanted to. Eleanor jumped off the bed and paced the room. Her heart pounded in her chest, fear squeezing the oxygen from her lungs. "Drop your weapon!" Gary must have left the door of his car open because she could still hear him as clear as day but not quite as loudly. "The hell with that!" someone yelled back at

him. Loud pops, over and over, sounded through her phone. "Gary!" she screamed. "Officer down! Officer down!" Voice after voice sounded on the radio and echoed through her phone. None of them belonging to Gary. "Please, God, no! Gary! Are you there? Please, be there!" "Get EMS here now!" she recognized the voice of Antonio. "Come on, man! Stay with me! You gotta hang in there, buddy!" "Gary!" Tears ran down her face as she dropped back onto the bed. She clutched the phone to her ear desperate to hear her husband's voice in the chaos. More sirens filled the air. Ambulance sirens this time. Eleanor jumped up and paced her bedroom again as she listened to the chaos on the other end of the call. "Someone say something!" The sirens stopped. More voices yelled but she couldn’t make sense of any of the words. A car door slammed. And then nothing but silence. A moment later she heard the crackle of a radio and then the line went dead. Maybe Gary was the one who'd slammed the door and turned off his phone. He'd woken her before. Maybe he assumed she'd gone back to bed. Her mind to tried to be rational but her heart knew the truth. Gary had

been shot. Images of him lying in the street in a pool of blood assaulted her but she shoved them away. No! She refused to accept that this would be how it all ended. Their lifetime of love, halted by a single bullet. She sat there in the dark, her phone clutched to her chest. She couldn't bring herself to dial his number. Instead, she willed it to ring while she cried herself to sleep. The doorbell rang. "Gary!" Eleanor jumped off her bed, tripping on the slippers she'd left in the middle of the floor and sending her cell phone skidding across the floor. The bell rang once more. And then a third time. Eleanor grabbed her robe from the back of the door and attempted to wrap it around herself as she ran down the hall. The outside lights were already on. She used to joke Gary that their house could land planes at night with all the security lights. The lights made her feel safe though. Except for tonight. Even through the frosted glass she could make out the darkness of the uniforms. The unique shape of the duty belts resting on their hips. She didn't want to open the door. She didn't want to hear what they had come to say. In her heart of hearts, she already knew. Taking a deep breath and whispering a prayer

for courage, she unlocked the bolt and slowly turned the knob. "Connor. Ricky," she said as she pulled open the door and stepped aside to motion for them to come in. "Hi, Eleanor." Ricky looked so sad. "Where's Gary?" Why she asked that question she had no idea. She read the expressions on their faces and she already knew. She took a step back as she slowly shook her head. "No." "Eleanor." Connor stepped forward first. "There's been an incident." "Way to be obvious, rookie," Ricky muttered as he elbowed Connor in the ribs. Tears flooded her eyes, poured down her cheeks and ran onto the old tee shirt she'd been sleeping in. "I know. I heard everything." The room spun a little bit and she reached for something to hold onto. Ricky caught her as she wobbled. "He's dead, isn't he?" "Damn it," Connor said to Ricky. "I told you his phone was on when I got in the car." Ricky gave him a look that said shut the hell up. Connor nodded once and Ricky turned back to her. He looked her in the eye. "Listen to me, Eleanor. He's alive—" "He's alive? Gary's okay? Oh, thank God." Ricky put his hands on her shoulders. "Ellie. Listen to me. He's alive. But you really need to

come with us. Right now." Eleanor looked up at him. There was no mistaking the seriousness in his expression, the worry and fear in his dark eyes. She nodded. "I need to change. And grab my purse." Gary's alive. The words played over in her head, on repeat, as she sprinted to her bedroom. Her foot landed on her cell phone she'd dropped and she stumbled in to the dresser, banging her shin. She ignored the searing pain as she clumsily yanked on the jeans she'd worn the day before. She threw on an old faded Virginia Beach sweatshirt right over the shirt she'd been sleeping in. Slipping her feet in to her tennis shoes without bothering with socks, she grabbed her purse off her dresser, her phone off the floor, and ran back to where the officers waited. "I'm ready. I just need to find my keys." Ricky placed a hand on her arm. "I'll drive." She shook her head. "But, how will I get home later?" Ricky pulled the door open. "One of us will make sure you have everything you need. Or, I'll call Mari and she can drive you home. Now, we really should go." "Her car is here." Eleanor pointed toward the road. "In front of my house." "It's okay, she can use my Jeep," Ricky replied. "Okay." She let them lead her out of the house.

The chill of November at the ocean front passed through her, the wind burning her cheeks, but she barely noticed. The faint scent of burning wood from someone's fireplace lingered with the cold. Another icy gust of wind hit them. Eleanor wrapped her arms around herself as she walked. Her wool coat did nothing to break the flow of the cold air. People thought it was always warm at the beach when in reality, the ocean could produce frigid air and bone chilling cold under the right conditions. Why that was even important to her at the moment, she had no idea. Ricky held open the passenger door of his car and she slid inside, hugging her purse to her abdomen. The door slammed. She jumped in the seat. Ricky jogged around the car and slid in behind the wheel, turning the key and spinning the tires as he slammed his foot to the gas pedal. Without waiting for Connor to even get to his car, Ricky turned on his blue lights and hit the sirens. His urgency made her stomach roll. As he raced down their street, she fought the urge to vomit. "How bad is it?" She reached over and touched Ricky's arm. "Please tell me. The truth." He glanced over at her. His expression gave away everything and nothing at the same time. "It's not good." "But he's still alive, right? Miracles happen

every day. That's what Father Thompson said at Mass on Sunday." Ricky didn't respond. Eleanor watched out the window as they drove. House after house, some with lights on, others without. They all blurred together as they sped along neighborhood streets. He's still alive played on repeat in her mind. Less than five minutes later, they pulled up in front of the emergency department of the hospital. Ricky slammed his foot down so hard on the brake, the back of the car skidded as they came to a stop. He pointed to the automatic door. "The lieutenant is in there. He'll get you to Gary. Go!" The desperation in his voice sent a chill down her spine. She pushed the car door open and ran through the sliding doors, straight to the desk. "I need to see my husband! Officer Gary Hart!" Her words came out in short bursts. Her chest felt tight and her head spun as the sharp scent of disinfectant mixed with vomit hit her. "Eleanor." She looked over to see Gary's boss, Lieutenant Jerry coming toward her. He took her by the elbow. "Come with me." A sea of blue filled the waiting area. As she and Lieutenant Jerry rushed through the room, the men and women Gary worked with parted, creating a path. Some whispered words of encouragement and others patted her arm as she walked by. They passed through a door and down a short hallway. At

the last room on the left, he stopped. "Gary!" Eleanor ran to the bed in the center of the room. Tubes and wires tangled around her as she reached for him. His normally ruddy cheeks were pale and his lips held a bluish tint. The slow, steady beeping of the heart monitor reassured her that she wasn't too late. A nurse stood by the bed, checking his vitals as another read the print out of his heart rythms. "He was just asking for you, Mrs. Hart." The nurse moved from taking his heart rate to checking his oxygen saturation and temperature." "Gary?" She leaned in and pressed a kiss to the unusually cool skin of his forehead. Not at all like the human furnace that had shared her bed for almost twenty-five years. Ragged feathers of breath caressed her cheek. Gary was the strongest man she knew. He'd survive this. He had to. "The doctor said he's stable for now. We've been waiting for you to get here so we can take him to the operating room. He refused to go until he saw you. I'll let the doctor know you've arrived." The second nurse left the room. "He's stubborn like that." "Hey, baby. Who you calling stubborn?" His eyes were still closed but he moved his hand slightly, reaching for hers. Ellie grabbed it and squeezed. "I guess it was a busy night after all." It

sounded stupid, even to her own ears but Gary sort of smiled. "I'm so sorry, baby. I tried." The tears started again but she ignored them. "It's okay. You're going to be okay." "I promised you I'd be safe. I really did try." She choked back a sob. "I know you did." "I love you." His words were barely a whisper. "I always will. You know that, right?" "I know you do. I love you too, so much." The tears were becoming sobs. She rubbed his thick brown hair back from his forehead with her other hand. "Maybe now you'll actually think about retiring?" He half smiled again. "I think the chances are pretty good, baby. Tell the boys I love them. Tell them I'm sorry. I wanted to be there for everything." "You will be. You're strong, Gary. Stronger than I ever was. You can fight. You have to fight." He coughed. A tiny trickle of pink tinged mucous trailed from the corner of his mouth. "I love you, Eleanor. I have loved you since the second grade. I'm sorry about the frog in your book bag." Full blown sobs took over then. "I always knew it was you. I forgive you, silly man! Don't leave me. I need you. Please. I can't live this life without you." She rested her head on his shoulder, tears

mixing with the blood on his chest. The coppery scent made her stomach lurch but she ignored it. He hummed a couple of bars to his favorite song, Carry On, My Wayward Son. "Carry on, baby. It's up to you now." "I don't want to carry on without you." He reached up, his hand shaking with the effort, and touched her cheek. "You are strong too, Eleanor. My beautiful girl." His hand dropped to his side. She felt his chest shudder as he let out one long breath. The machine by his bed sounded an alarm as the digital readout took the form of a straight line. "Code Blue!" the nurse yelled as she slapped her palm against a red button by the gurney. Bells rung, shoes pounded the linoleum, people yelled things she couldn't make sense of. Eleanor sat up. "No! Please, help! He needs help!" She shook him by the shoulders. "Gary! Wake up, baby! I'm here! I'm here!" "He's coding!" The nurse pried her away as another pushed the crash cart in to the room. "Gary! Don't leave me! Gary!" Strong arms wrapped around her from behind, pulling her away. "Let me go!" "Let them work, Ellie." Antonio held her to him. She struggled against his massive arms. "Please! Let me get to him. He needs me!" Eleanor clawed at Antonio's arms but he held her

tight. "Right now, he needs them," Antonio said, his voice full of heartache next to her ear. "You can't help him now." Eleanor turned and shoved Antonio in the chest. "Don't say that! You're his best friend! How can you say that? We have to do something." She stumbled forward, sobbing. Antonio caught her again and held her close. "Clear!" One of the nurses called as they placed the defibrillator paddles against his chest. Over and over again they shocked him but that flat line never budged. "Gary! Fight, Gary! Please!" she yelled every time the paddles made his body jump but that line still stayed flat. "Please, fight! I need you!" A doctor stepped in and shut off the machine. "We've got to call it. He's lost too much blood and there is just too much damage. He never would have survived surgery." "No!" Ellie pulled out of Antonio's arms but he caught her up again. She pounded his chest with her fists. "You were supposed to have his back! He trusted you! Why didn't you protect him?" "I'm so sorry, Ellie. I'm so sorry." Antonio slumped against the wall, holding her tight. "It all just happened so damn fast." "No." The fight had gone out of her though and she sagged against him. When her legs would hold

her again, she stepped away from Antonio, going to Gary's side. She picked up his hand and held it to her heart. Tears rolled down her face, dripping from her chin and mixing with Gary's blood. "Please, come back." A nurse stepped up and gently closed Gary's eyes. His beautiful blue eyes. They'd never look at her again. How could she live a lifetime without him looking at her? Without his strong arms to hold her close? Eleanor climbed onto the bed beside him, her arms wrapped across his chest, oblivious to the blood and bandages that were now everywhere. "I'm so sorry," the nurse said, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Officer Hart was well liked around here. He will be sorely missed." The nurse left the room. Eleanor clung to Gary, oblivious to the people coming in and out of the room. She laced her fingers through his and felt the cool, smooth surface of his wedding ring. Leaning up slightly, she slipped the ring from his finger. Gary's hands were so much larger than hers it would only fit on her thumb. Quiet footsteps entered the room. "Mrs. Hart? I know this is a very difficult time for you but, was your husband an organ donor?" "What?" she asked, looking up at the doctor that had failed to save her husband. "You can't be serious. You actually want to ask this right now?"

"I'm sorry but I have to ask sooner rather than later if any of his organs are to be viable for transplantation. Do you know if he intended to donate his organs upon his death?" "We never talked about it. There was never a reason to." "How do you feel about it?" The doctor spoke softly, carefully. "I don't feel anything about it." "Eleanor." She felt Antonio's hand on her shoulder. She turned on him. "What? You want me to tell them they can cut him up and reduce the man that I have loved more than half my life to bits and pieces?" "It's what he'd want. I think you know that." Eleanor jumped off emergency room bed and paced the small room. "What about what I want? I want my husband alive. I want to turn the clock back twelve hours and fix the mistakes we made. I should have helped him get dressed. He never should have called me from work. I don't want to be asked if he can be stripped of his organs like a stolen car being stripped of its parts." "It's okay, you can say no," the doctor said, his voice gentle. "I have a kidney patient in ICU with your husband's blood type and I thought maybe there'd be a chance of a match—" Eleanor stopped walking. She threw her hands

in the air. "It's not like he needs them now anyway." A fresh flood of sobs tore through her. Antonio wrapped his arms around her again as she cried. He rubbed her back. "It's the right thing, Eleanor." She shook her head. "None of this is right." "No, it's not," one of the orderlies said. "I am very sorry for your loss. Officer Hart was a great cop. The best. He's the reason I have this job." Eleanor studied the young man. "Gary got you a job here?" He shrugged. "He caught me trying to break into a house and gave me a choice. Get my life together or end up locked up. There was a hiring fair that same day. Dropped me at the front door and told me to do the right thing. Gave me his card to use him as a reference. " "I never knew that." "I didn't either," Antonio said. "So, what do you want to do, Mrs. Hart?" the doctor asked. Eleanor looked at her husband's body and then at the young man in scrubs carefully cleaning him up and nodded slowly. "Okay. Take what you can. It's what Gary would have wanted." She waited as someone hooked him up to a life support machine to keep his organs alive until they could remove them. The unnatural rise and fall of his chest stirred a tiny flame of hope in her chest

that her brain quickly snuffed out. Gary's dead. "Thank you, Mrs. Hart." The doctor patted her arm. "I can't imagine what you are going through. I'm so very sorry for your loss. Gary was a good man." The doctor spoke quietly to one of the nurses then headed from the room. "Does everyone here know my husband?" she asked no one in particular. "Like Lacey said, he was well-liked here in the emergency department. I imagine many people in Virginia Beach feel the same way. He will be missed. I want you to know he spoke of you and your boys often," another nurse said. "Do you need a minute with him before they take him to the OR? It's okay if you do." She nodded, nowhere near ready to say goodbye. "Thank you." Eleanor sat in the chair by the bed, holding Gary's hand in hers and resting her cheek against his still heart, begging silently for it all to be a dream. Any minute now he'd open his eyes and tell her he loved her. But he didn't reach for her or tug one of her loose strands of hair like he'd done since they were kids. He didn't kiss the tip of her nose and tell he loved her. She sat there as the room around her slowly emptied and Gary's natural ruddiness faded completely away. Eleanor hugged Gary's still form, unable to let him go. Somehow, maybe if she hugged him hard enough, he'd come

back to her. "Why?" she whispered, the only answer the swish and hum of the machines keeping his organs alive. "You promised me forever. Don't you remember? Standing up there, on the top of that little hill, you gave me a ring and promised to love me forever." She smacked the edge of the mattress. "It's not forever yet, damn it!" She collapsed against his chest, more tears pouring from her eyes. They'd built a life together. They had plans. "It's not fair," she sobbed, praying for one more touch, one more word from the man she'd sworn forever to. "Ellie?" Sometime later she heard the familiar voice and felt the gentle touch on her shoulder. "Come on, Ellie. Let me take you home." "No." Vivian wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "I'm so sorry, Ellie. Come on, let's let them do what they need to do. Gary's gone, honey." She shook her head. "No. He can't be gone." Vivian pulled her in to a hug, patting her on the back. "I'm so sorry, El." Eleanor stepped back. "Everyone keeps saying they're sorry. What does that mean, exactly? Sorry, we couldn't save your husband's life? Sorry I'm going to have to live the rest of my life without the love of my life? Somehow sorry just doesn't seem to

cut it." "No, I don't suppose it does." Vivian pulled her into another hug and this time Eleanor let her. Her tears soaked Vivian's shoulder as she clung to her best friend. "I heard it, Viv. I heard the whole thing." "I know, sweetie. I know." Vivian squeezed her tighter. "I'm so sorry you had to hear that." Eleanor stepped back, wiping at her eyes. "I have to call the boys. They need to come home." Vivian patted her hand. "Wait until morning. Let them sleep. Tomorrow is going to be a long day for them. For all of you." She nodded and let her friend lead her from the room. They were quiet on the way home. Vivian used one hand to steer the car and held Eleanor's hand in the other. As they pulled in to the driveway, the sky had just begun to lighten. A hint of pink sat on the eastern horizon announcing the start of the first day of her life without Gary in it. Never again would he kiss her goodbye as he left for work. She'd never again hear him call her his beautiful girl. The house felt cold as they walked through the door, almost like it knew Gary's warmth was gone from it forever. Eleanor went to the kitchen and filled the tea kettle, setting it on the stove to heat. Vivian stood in the doorway, watching. "Tea?" she asked her friend.

Vivian nodded. "Sure. I'll make it, though." She walked over to the cabinet where the tea bags were and pulled out a box. "Why don't you sit down. You have to be exhausted." Eleanor sat on one of the stools by the breakfast bar. The seat shifted slightly. Gary had promised her he'd tighten the screws on the that weeks ago. "What am I supposed to do now? I don't even know where to begin." She rested her head on her folded arms on the counter. "You'll figure it out as you go. And you have me and Antonio and Mari and Ricky to help you." Eleanor looked at the calendar on the wall by the pantry. All of Gary's overtime shifts for the month of November were written in his neat, block lettering in black ink. Gary always used black ink. "He wasn't supposed to be working last night." "What do you mean?" Vivian asked. Eleanor waved toward the calendar. "There's nothing on the calendar for the thirteenth." Vivian wrapped an arm around her shoulders and hugged her. "Sweetie, today is the thirteenth." Eleanor looked at the calendar again. "Oh." The tea kettle whistled. She watched as Vivian filled two mugs with the steaming water. When her friend set one of the mugs in front of her, a tear leaked slowly from the corner of her eye. It was the A+ Teacher cup Gary had given her for Christmas the year before. Wiping at her cheek, she picked it

up and held it tightly. The hot mug felt good in her icy fingers. There'd be no Gary with them this Christmas. Eleanor sighed. "We never discussed this. It felt like we were tempting the fates. Now I have no idea what he would have wanted." Vivian rubbed her back gently. "We'll figure it out. You knew Gary better than anyone in the world." A single tear escaped the corner of her right eye. "You said knew, not know. It's really real, isn't it, Viv?" "I'm afraid so, sweetie." "I keep thinking this is all a bad dream. That Gary will walk through that door any minute now and wake me up trying to be quiet as he gets into bed." Ellie smiled. "That man was like a bull in a china shop, no matter how hard he tried not to make any noise." Vivian laughed. "It's hard to be graceful when you're as tall as he was." "Yeah. I guess so." Eleanor took a sip of her tea. "He was like a big teddy bear. My own teddy bear and now he's gone." She inhaled slowly, trying to keep from crying once more. Vivian hugged her. "Gary was a good husband. The very best father. I know you are going to miss him like crazy." Early morning light filled the kitchen as they sat

there, talking and crying. As the clock turned to seven, Eleanor took out her phone and dialed her son Jackson's phone number. "Mom, it's early. Even for you." Jackson's voice was heavy with sleep. "Wake your brother up. I need to talk to both of you." Jackson and his twin brother Jameson shared a dorm room so at least she only had to do this once. "What's wrong? Is Dad okay?" She could hear the worry in his voice. It probably should have surprised her that he assumed that was why she called but it didn't. Her son was wise for his age. "Please, just wake your brother up." "Okay, hold on. Jameson! Mom's on the phone. She needs to tell us something." "Hi, Mom, are you okay?" Jameson had always been a very sound sleeper, even as a baby but he sounded wide awake now. "Is Dad okay?" "Boys—" she paused, her tongue suddenly feeling too big for her mouth. "Mom?" Jameson said. "It's your father. There was a—shooting last night." "Is he okay?" Jackson asked. "He responded to a call to help another officer and when he got there, the suspect open fire on him. He was hurt very badly. He tried to fight but— I'm so sorry, boys. He didn't make it."

By the time she finished talking, the tears were in full swing again. "We are leaving in ten minutes, Mom. We'll be there before noon." Jackson, her strong, stoic son had switched into his get it done mode. Jameson wore his heart on his sleeve. She could hear him crying and cursing in the background. He would need his brother's strength. "Please be careful. I'd die if something happened to the two of you." "Don't worry, Mom. I'm okay. We will see you in a few hours. I love you." Jackson ended the call. "That was the hardest thing I've ever had to do," Eleanor said, setting her phone on the counter top. "Jameson is a mess." "Jackson's driving though, right?" Vivian asked. She nodded. "Yes." "Good. He'll keep it together until they get home safely." Vivian picked up their empty mugs and set them in the dishwasher. "What can I do for you now?" "You can go home." "What?" Vivian looked hurt. "I'm okay. I need a shower and then I'm going to take a little nap before the boys get here. Antonio's got to be a mess right now. Go to him. Tell him thank you for taking care of Gary." "He told me to stay with you." She gave Vivian a hug. "You are an amazing

friend. And I am going to need you like crazy in the next few days, but right now, I think I just want to be alone for a bit." "If you're sure?" Vivian looked uncertain, torn between her loyalty to her friend and desire to be with her husband. Eleanor nodded. "I'm sure. Give him a hug for me. Tell him I know he did everything he could and I'm sorry I blamed him." "Okay. But I can come back later. Call me if you need anything. I mean it, Ellie. Anything. Even if it’s just a bottle of tequila and a half gallon of rocky road." They walked to the front door. "I will. I promise. Come back later with a lot of wine. I don't think tequila is the best option right now but I'm definitely going to need something." "You got it, girlfriend." Vivian squeezed her tight. "I love you." "I love you too, Viv. Thank you for being here for me." She waited until Vivian was in her car before closing and locking the door behind her. Eleanor grabbed her cell phone and headed to the master bathroom. She'd left the light on in her bedroom. The covers lay twisted on her side of the bed. Gary's side looked as empty as she felt. Passing the bed, she went to the bathroom and flipped the switch on the wall. The room flooded in warm,

artificial light giving her the first look at herself in the mirror since the night before. She sucked in a breath at the sight of the dark red and brown stains on the front of her sweatshirt. A matching smear on her the side of her chin. Blood. Gary's blood. For about the hundredth time since eleven forty-seven the night before, she cried. Removing the sweatshirt and dropping it to the floor, she then kicked off her shoes and pulled off her jeans. Turning on the water in the shower, she waited for it to warm up. As steam filled the bathroom, she grabbed a tissue and blew her nose. The tears still ran, even as she stood under the stream of the shower head. When she reached for her body wash, she accidentally grabbed Gary's. The fresh, familiar scent of Old Spice wrapped around her like a hug as she squeezed some into her shower scrubber. A new round of tears fell as she lathered the soap and imagined Gary wrapping his arms around her instead. As she rinsed her body and watched as the suds ran down the drain, she remembered the last time she'd seen Gary the day before. She'd been half drunk on margaritas and girl talk as he pinned her to the door and kissed her. If she'd known it was the last time he'd hold her or kiss her, she'd have made

it last so much longer. A sudden thought struck her. This was all her fault. She'd been so busy having a good time with her girlfriends, she'd broken their routine. "Damn it, Gary! Why didn't you tell me to help you?" She leaned against the back of the shower and slowly slid down the cold tiles to the floor of the tub. Pulling her knees up to her chest, she rested her forehead on them and let the tears flow just like the water into the drain. When she felt like she couldn't spare another drop of salty tear water, she screamed until her throat went hoarse. Picking up a shampoo bottle she threw it at the opposite wall. "We were supposed to grow old together!" She sat there until the water ran as cold as her heart felt. She turned off the water and sat there, huddled on the bottom of the shower with her arms wrapped around her knees. The steam slowly dissipated and goose flesh rose on her body as the temperature of the air cooled. "How am I supposed to do this without you? Damn it, Gary! You promised me you'd be safe!" More tears poured from her eyes. She picked up Gary's shower gel and poured it down the drain. "Not like you're gonna need this anymore. Or this." She grabbed his shaving cream and held down the button until every last bit of foam came up. When

the can began to spit, she threw it at the wall. A tiny crack formed in the tile it hit, as the can dropped to the drain. From downstairs she heard the doorbell ring but she had no intention of answering it. Pulling herself up off the floor, Eleanor opened the shower door and grabbed a towel. As she dried herself, she caught sight of the clothes she'd stripped off earlier. The smell of drying blood made her gag. Wadding them up into a ball, she stuffed them into a trash bag she found under the sink, then stuffed the bag back into the cabinet. As she pulled on a pair of black leggings and one of Gary's old t-shirts, she heard the doorbell ring once more. The sound echoed through the too empty house. Instead of going to the door, she climbed into her bed and pulled Gary's pillow to her. His scent lingered, summoning a fresh round of tears as she hugged it to her heart.



"Antonio! Are you home?" Vivian pushed the front door open and stepped into the house. Her husband's patrol car sat on the street in front of the house so she knew he had to be there but she'd learned a long time ago to announce herself when she entered the house. He'd been on the job long enough that his cop instincts often took over without him realizing it. Especially if he got woken from a sound sleep. "In here," he called from the family room. She followed his voice to the back of the house and found him sitting on the sofa, still in uniform. He held the remote control in his left hand and a beer in his right. His duty belt hung over the coffee

table in front of him. On any other day, the sight of his gear slung across the furniture would have burned her up but this morning it comforted her. It meant Antonio had survived the night. Her relief stirred up an overwhelming feeling of guilt. The television was tuned to the local news but the volume had been muted. Blue lights flashed on the screen and the headline read Local Officer Gunned Down in Cold Blood. A picture of Gary flashed across the screen, fanning the flame of guilt at her relief that Antonio was alive. She sat beside him on the sofa and watched as he took a long drink from the bottle he held. "How's Ellie?" "Worried about you." Vivian took the remote from him, then wrapped her fingers in her husband's. Resting her head on his shoulder, she fiddled with his badge with her other hand, trying to ignore the spots of blood on his shirt. "How're you holding up?" He shrugged. "Fine. It's part of the job, Viv. People die. When your number's up, it's up." His lack of emotion scared her. Antonio usually bottled things up and pretended they didn't exist but this was different. "People do die, yes. But your best friend was just ambushed in front of you. He nearly died in your arms. That’s not the same thing." Antonio pushed her aside and stood up. He ran

his fingers through his hair, making it look as wild as the expression in his eyes. "Fuck, Viv! What do you want me to do? Cry? Punch a wall?" Vivian stood up too. "If you have to! Scream. Yell. Throw the remote control! You don't have to be the strong one all the time." "I need a shower." He stormed off down the hall, stopping in the kitchen for another beer on the way. The bedroom door slammed so hard the pictures on the wall in the living room shook. At least he was showing some kind of response. Anger was an emotion she could work with. It meant he wasn't as strong as he wanted everyone to think though, and that would make her husband feel vulnerable. Which would just piss him off. The next few days were going to be tough. Resisting the urge to follow Antonio, she went to the laundry room instead and put a load of laundry in the washer. After that, she loaded and started the dishwasher, wiped down all the counters, mopped the kitchen floor, and vacuumed the rugs. No matter how hard she wiped or scrubbed or vacuumed, she couldn't rid her mind of the image of Gary, cold and still with Eleanor wrapped around him sobbing. The shower shut off just as she put the vacuum in the closet. "Vivian!" "What?" she yelled back. "Can you bring me another beer?"

At least he sounded less anxious. She grabbed a bottle out of the refrigerator and walked to the bedroom. Antonio lay on his back, on top of the comforter completely naked with the ceiling fan on. He had his eyes closed and his arms straight out beside him. "What are you doing?" He lifted his head to look at her. His eyes were red and swollen. "Air drying my junk. What's it look like?" Vivian crawled onto the bed next to him, laying on her back as well. "Here's your beer. Maybe you should take a break after this since you work tonight?" He reached for the bottle. "Not working. Sarge said I needed a night off." "He's right." Antonio sat up and opened the beer, taking a long swig off the bottle. "I should be out there, getting that asshole off the street." She sat up too. "You mean he's not in custody?" Antonio shook his head. "Fucker took off. The guys lost sight of him a couple blocks down. I should have shot him when I had the chance." "It's not your fault he got away." "It's my fault he got those shots off. If I hadn't been such a fucking pussy, he'd have been dead before Gary even got there. Instead, I tried to reason with an armed psycho." He finished the

bottle and slammed it down on the nightstand. "I fucked up, Viv. I was supposed to have his back and I didn't. Now Gary's dead and I could have done something to stop it." Her big, strong, insurmountable husband looked defeated and crumpled. Vivian crawled over and straddled his lap. Taking his face in her hands, she said, "Now, you listen to me. It is not your fault. There's no way you could have known that this was going to happen." Antonio's head fell back against the pillows. His hands gripped her hips. "I froze, baby. I froze." He leaned in, resting his forehead against her chest, letting out a long breath. "I froze." She could feel every ounce of his sadness as the wetness of his silent tears soaked through her shirt. Rubbing her hands slowly up and down his back, she pressed soft kisses to the top of his head. "It's okay, baby. It's going to be okay." Antonio moved suddenly, flipping her on to her back and reversing their positions. Hot tears fell from his face, landing on hers. "It's not okay. It will never be okay." She wanted to tell him he was wrong. That one day they would all get over what had happened but she couldn't. Gary had been his best friend. His absence in their lives would be a constant reminder that it could have been him, her husband, laying on that hospital bed instead of Gary. The thought of it

forced a sob from her lips. Desperation filled her. Leaning up, Vivian wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him down, crushing her lips to his. He responded immediately, channeling all the emotions he had no idea what to do with in to that kiss. His hands tore at her clothes, pulling her shirt up over her head. Vivian undid the button on her jeans and Antonio shoved them down her thighs. He was inside her in a heartbeat, the adrenaline left over from the night's events driving him. Their tears mixed with sweat as Antonio exorcised his demons. They cried out as one. Antonio collapsed beside her, his breath coming in heavy gasps. Vivian kicked her jeans the rest of the way off and rolled to her side, resting her head on his chest. His heart raced as he still gasped for air, proof that her husband lay beside her alive and whole. She could have been the one mourning the loss of her only love and a very guilty part of her felt so glad it wasn't. Antonio gripped her hand, squeezing so hard it hurt. "It could have been me." He was thinking it too. She nodded, pulling their hands up to her lips and pressing a kiss to his. "It could have been, but it wasn't." He loosened his grip, letting her hand go. "It should have been though. How do I live with that?

How do I go to work every day and see Gary's car and know that he died and I didn't when I'm the one that called for help?" His heartbreak became hers. The emotions swirling in his dark eyes tightened a knot around her own heart. It could have been him. But it wasn't. Antonio had survived. There had to be a reason. Vivian pressed a kiss to his chin. "By knowing that it wasn't your time." "That's a fucking stupid reason." She leaned up on her elbow and looked down at him. "It's the best one I have. You think I'm not feeling the same thing? I watched Eleanor sob. I stood next to my best friend and her dead husband, knowing it could have been you. Next time it might be. You think that doesn't scare the shit out of me?" Antonio lifted his head and kissed her. "I love you. I'm sorry you were afraid. I never wanted you to experience that." "I love you too." She stretched back out next to him. "But you have to know, I'm always afraid for you. Every time you walk out that door, I pray you return to me. I hold my breath for ten straight hours until you walk back in." He reached over and touched her cheek. "I guess I never realized how hard it is for you." She shrugged. "I knew when we met. Your job is the other woman in our marriage and I accepted that a long time ago. But I still worry about losing

you to it. It's a constant ache in the corner of my soul. What happened last night is proof enough of life's uncertainties." He yawned. "I will never leave you, I promise." "I know, baby," she replied, knowing that's a promise he could never keep. He yawned again. "You should get some sleep." Antonio rolled over on his side, pulling the covers up to his hips. "Yeah. I'm beat. Stay with me for a while?" "Of course." She lay next to him, her arm across his chest listening as his breathing evened out and thanking God he lay beside her with every light snore. An image of Eleanor holding the body of her husband flashed through her mind once more and her eyes filled with tears. She inched a little closer to Antonio so that she could feel his warmth. She stayed that way until she heard Tony, their son moving around downstairs. She grabbed some clean clothes and ducked into the bathroom to shower off. The house was quiet when she headed downstairs. Tony must have left already. She'd hoped to talk to him about Gary. Now he'd probably hear about it at school. As she entered the kitchen her cell phone rang. The screen said it was Marietta. She answered the call. "Hey, girl."

"Viv! Oh my God! Can you believe what happened? How's Eleanor?" Marietta talked faster than anyone she knew on a good day. Under stress, her words all ran together in one long sentence. "Oh, Dios mio!" Vivian started the coffee maker and watched as her mug filled. The way her head ached it would be a multi coffee day for sure. "I just left her a couple of hours ago. She's how you'd expect her to be. I think the shock is starting to settle in." "I've got a dish of enchiladas in the oven. I figure those two boys of hers are gonna need to eat. Bringing some rice and beans too." "I was there when she called them. They are already on their way home. Food is always a good idea, Mari." "It's the southern way," she replied, repeating something Vivian said to her often. Having only moved to Virginia Beach a few years earlier from New York City, she and Ricky had been confused by sweet tea and fried chicken as a main diet staple. "We'll make a southern belle out of you yet." When her coffee cup had filled, she switch off the maker and took it to the table. Marietta laughed. "You can try. I'm always gonna be a city girl at heart. Now, what can I do for Eleanor?" From the refrigerator, she pulled out her

favorite pumpkin spice creamer and poured some into the coffee cup. "I'm bringing wine over later. Join us?" "Now, that I can do and do well. Maybe I'll get a cheesecake as well." "Cheesecake with enchiladas?" Vivian sipped her coffee, relishing the hot liquid. "Cheesecake goes with everything, mi amiga," Marietta replied. After she returned the creamer to the refrigerator, Vivian sat down and leaned back in her chair. "I can't argue with that. I'm going to give her a few hours to rest and be with her boys, then I'll head back over. Maybe around five thirty." "Okay. I will meet you there. How's Antonio holding up?" "He's sleeping now. Carrying a lot of emotions though." "Survivor's guilt?" Marietta asked. Vivian sighed. "He feels responsible." "As if he could stop the guy from shooting that rifle." She swirled the coffee lightly in the cup, watching the liquid turn. "He thinks if he had shot the guy first, Gary would still be alive. He thought he could reason with the guy." "Poor Antonio. It's going to take some time to work through. He might have to talk to someone." Vivian chuckled, then sighed. "Have you met

my husband? No way he'd go to counseling. That would be a sign of weakness." Marietta sighed. "Yeah, Ricky too. So, listen, Ricky told me something about what happened." "What did he say?" "He said it was the new guy's fault." "Connor Williams? Why would he say that?" Vivian pushed her chair out and stood up. She paced the kitchen, carrying her mug and sipping from it occasionally. "Ricky was there for the initial call. They attempted to pull him over for running a stop sign." Vivian stopped walking. "And somehow that escalated to murdering a cop?" "Ricky says the guy was high on something. They are thinking spice. His eyes were glassy and his pupils were huge. When Connor approached him, he was agitated and not making any sense. Connor told him to get out of the car. The guy did but instead of cuffing him, Connor walked away. He forgot something in his car." "Where was Ricky?" Vivian asked. "He was on the other side of the car, detaining the passenger. By the time he noticed Connor had walked away, the driver had grabbed a rifle from the back seat of the car—I guess it had been covered by a blanket—and took off down the road." "Did they go after him?"

"Connor pulled his taser but he missed. Only got him with one probe. The guy went wild. Ricky put the other guy in the back of the car and he and Connor ran after the suspect." Vivian sat back down. "Did he say how Antonio ended up there?" "When Ricky called for back-up, Antonio was the first to get there. The suspect was in the middle of an intersection aiming at all the cars. Antonio tried to talk him down so he wouldn't shoot any of the civilians then Gary came racing up, lights and sirens and I guess it pushed the guy over the edge." Vivian leaned back in her chair and ran a hand through her hair. "Are you going to tell Eleanor about all of this?" "What good would it really do?" Marietta asked. She sat forward and folded her arms on the table. "I think I'd want all the details. Wouldn't you?" "I don't know." Marietta sighed. "I really don't know." Vivian let out a long breath. The entire thing had begun to overwhelm her. "I'm going to go run a couple of errands while Antonio is asleep. See you at Ellie's house around five thirty?" "Okay," Marietta said. They ended the call and Vivian put her phone in her purse. Grabbing a jacket, she headed out to her

car. At the supermarket, she grabbed a few groceries and three bottles of wine. As she stood in line, the headline of the daily paper caught her attention: Virginia Beach Officer Dies In The Line Of Duty. A large picture of Gary's patrol car, driver's side door open and blue lights flashing sat on the front page. Just past the front of the car you could see Gary's legs and feet, where he lay on the ground. A smaller headshot of him in his full dress uniform sat below the large photo. Vivian picked up two copies and added them to her things. "Can you believe that?" The cashier pointed to the newspapers. "I'm still having trouble wrapping my mind around it," Vivian replied. "He got what he deserved. I'm tired of cops thinking they can do whatever they want. That guy was just driving, minding his own business and they pulled him over." The girl rung up the bottles of wine and set them in a paper bag. "It's about time someone stood up to the cops." "Cops don't randomly pull people over for minding their own business." "Oh please, it happens all the time. My boyfriend's cousin got pulled over because he looked like he might run a stop sign. Cops searched his whole car and got pissed when they didn't find anything."

Vivian finished unloading the rest of her items, trying not to laugh at the ridiculous story the girl had just told. "You know that's probably not how it actually happened, right?" "That's exactly how it happened. Stupid cops, thinking they can do whatever they want, whenever they want." Vivian picked up one of the papers and pointed to Gary's photo. "He's dead. You get that, right?" "Um, yeah. I'm just saying it's better him than the other dude." Blood rushed through her veins as her heart pounded in her chest. "He was shot in cold blood by a guy who was so high he couldn't remember his own name." The cashier shrugged. "Sometimes karma can be a real bitch." "Are you really serious right now? You can't actually be that dumb." "Who are you calling dumb?" The girl threw her hands on her hips and glared at Vivian. She nodded at the newspapers. "I'm not the dumb one." That's when Vivian lost it. Slamming her hands down on the conveyor belt, she leaned in close to the girl. "That dumb cop? He's my best friend's husband. She had to call her two sons this morning at college and tell them their father was murdered. And it was murder. He just showed up to help his friend stop a crazy man from killing innocent

civilians. Since when is murder equivalent to karma?" The cashier stepped back, holding her hands up in surrender. "Hey, I'm really sorry. I didn't know." "You're damn right, you didn't. I don't think you know much of anything about anything." Tears had long since spilled over and were running down her face. "He was a good man. One of the best there is. He wasn't just a cop. He was a husband, a father, a friend—" Someone wrapped an arm around her shoulder. Looking up, she saw an older woman with tears in her eyes also. "It's a terrible tragedy what happened to your friend's husband." To the cashier she said, "You should be ashamed of yourself." "What? I was just making conversation when she started going all crazy on me. I didn't know she knew the guy." "Whether she knew him or not, doesn't matter. Perhaps from now on your making of conversation should consist of talking about the weather. Or maybe just food." "Is there a problem here?" A man wearing khakis and a royal blue button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up joined them. His nametag read, “Assistant Manager: Joe”. "Your employee needs to learn to watch her tongue," the older woman said. "Hey! I didn't do anything wrong!" The

cashier's face had turned a deep shade of crimson. "That crazy bitch just started yelling at me!" "Who're you calling a crazy bitch?" Vivian leaned over the conveyor belt, getting right in the girl's face. "You have not yet begun to witness my crazy." "Get her away from me!" The cashier stepped back as far as she could. "She's fucking nuts!" Joe just stood there, looking nervous and uncertain. "Why don't we all just calm down and talk about this." "I don't have anything else to say." Vivian wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her top. "I just need to go." She paid for the groceries and gathered her bags. To the kind woman, she said, "Thank you for stepping in. I appreciate it and your support of our police officers." "We hope you'll shop with us again soon," Joe called after her, still sounding as confused as he looked. Vivian headed to the door. "I wouldn't count on it!" she called back over her shoulder. "Customer service here sucks donkey balls!" As she stepped through the doors, she heard the cashier yelling about how she didn't get paid enough to be verbally abused by customers. She fumed the whole way home, praying that Eleanor wouldn't hear anything like that as she mourned her husband. Pulling into the driveway,

she parked and turned the car off. Her reflection gave away the tears she'd shed. Grabbing a fast food napkin from the glove box, she blew her nose and blinked a few times to get rid of the redness in her eyes. She could explain away the redness in her face with the chill in the wind but Antonio didn't need to know she'd been crying. Then she'd have to explain and what had happened would only fuel his flame of guilt and self-loathing. As soon as she walked in the house she heard the television on in the family room. She closed the door loudly to let Antonio know she was home then headed to the kitchen. "Hey, baby, what're you doing up already?" she asked as she passed the room he was in. He had the television on a cooking channel. Even from where she stood, he looked like crap. He didn't even look over at her, just stared straight ahead at the television. "Couldn't sleep." "Can I get you anything?" "I'm good." "Okay, then. I'm heading over to Ellie's this evening. I'm bringing plenty of wine." "Have fun." He didn't even turn to look at her. His indifference worried her, made her almost reluctant to leave him alone. "Oh, I forgot. She wanted me to thank you for taking care of Gary. She knows you were with him when he got shot."

"Fucking wonderful." Antonio raised the volume on the television, apparently dismissing the conversation. She thought about going in there to force him to talk but Vivian knew better. Her husband could have won the Nobel prize, if there were one, for stubbornness every year since she'd met him. He just had to work through things on his own. When he was ready to talk, he would. "I'm here for you, baby, you just have to let me in," she whispered as she put the groceries away. When she finished, she sent a text to Marietta and Eleanor. Heading out in an hour or so. Anyone need anything on my way? Marietta: I'm good! Got the tastiness all loaded up Eleanor: My husband to come walking through the door with you? Vivian: I wish a thousand ways I could make that happen for you. She tucked the phone in her pocket and went to the bathroom for a tissue. Once she'd put away the items she'd bought and prepped sandwiches for her husband and son, Vivian grabbed her bag of wine and headed back toward the front door. "I'm leaving, Antonio." "Uh-huh," he answered. She walked into the family room and leaned over his shoulder to kiss him on the cheek. "There's sandwiches in the fridge. Tony will be home from

practice by six thirty." "Thanks." Vivian walked around to stand in front of him. "You might want to put some clothes on before he gets home." Antonio waved her out of the way. "You're blocking the tv. I'm watching the news." She pointed at his bare chest. "You're also sitting here in your jockey shorts." "Your point?" Vivian set her bag down and dropped to her knees in front of Antonio. Taking the remote from him, she hit the mute button and set it down on the floor beside her, out of his reach. Antonio scowled but made no move to go after it. "Why did you do that?" "Because I want you to pay attention to me." He rolled his eyes. "If we are about to have one of those long drawn out discussions about what a terrible husband and father I am, save your breath. I already know I'm a fuck up." The level of emotion in his words cut straight through her. His eyes, usually the color of milk chocolate, were dark with sadness and regret. Vivian reached up and pressed a palm to his cheek, noting the scruff that had begun to form there. Antonio hated not being clean shaven. She stroked the scratchiness gently. "You are not a fuck up. Stop saying things like that."

He pushed her hand away. "Whatever. Can I have the remote back now?" Vivian sighed and rested her head on his bare knees. "Please, Antonio. What do I have to say to convince that you didn't do anything wrong?" "Make Eleanor believe that." Vivian looked up at him. "She knows it!" "Really? Because what I heard her say in the hospital is that if I'd had his back, Gary'd still be alive. And she's fucking right." Vivian picked up the remote and stood up. "You know she doesn't really think that. I told you she apologized. But, no one can convince you but yourself. I'll only be gone for a couple of hours." She handed him the remote and started to walk from the room, stopping in the doorway. "I love you, Antonio, and we are going to get through this. Together."



The Hart house was unusually quiet and dark. For as long as she'd been friends with Eleanor, lights had always shone in all of the front windows once the sun began to set. Even the porch light was off though and that just wasn't like her friend. In one hand, she carried a bag with food and the other she used to ring the doorbell. A shiver ran down her spine as the sound of the bell echoed beyond the door. She pulled her coat in tighter with her free hand. The whole house felt like it was in mourning. If Eleanor's car hadn't been sitting in the driveway next to the Jeep her two boys shared, she'd have left. The porch was covered with boxes

and bags and she could smell fried chicken. Marietta rang the doorbell once more. And rang it again. Finally, on the fourth try she heard sound coming from inside. The porch light snapped on and the front door opened slowly. Eleanor looked through the space between the frame and the door then pulled it all the way open. "Marietta. Come in. I guess I fell asleep. The boys are locked in their room with their headphones on playing video games. Oh, wow. What's all this?" Marietta shrugged. "Vivian says it’s the southern way." Eleanor actually smiled a tiny bit and grabbed a few bags. "I'll send the boys out to get the rest in a bit. It's cold enough that it will keep a bit longer." "You and the boys sure won't go hungry." She followed Eleanor to the kitchen where she deposited the trays of food she carried onto the counter. "I brought you enchiladas and rice with beans. Also, a cheesecake. Eat my food first." "Thank you. You know yours is the best." Eleanor half-smiled again and pointed toward a counter top already loaded with casserole dishes. The scent of more fresh fried chicken mingled with the savory fragrance of macaroni and cheese and about a dozen other flavors. "You can set it down there." "Looks like you've been getting deliveries all day." Three flower arrangements sat on the kitchen

table. "Those are pretty." "I don't even know who they are from. I guess the boys have been handling it. I took a shower and laid down. Been in bed most of the day. I wasn't in the mood to entertain." Eleanor turned on the lights and Marietta got her first good look at her friend. Black circles under her red rimmed eyes made Eleanor's naturally fair skin look downright pasty. Her shoulder length brown hair looked like she hadn't bothered to brush it after a shower. Her usually bright green eyes seemed dull and empty. Unable to stand it anymore, she grabbed her friend up in a hug. "I'm so sorry, mi amiga. Gary—" The rest of her sentence was lost in the flood of sobs that overtook her. They stood there, clinging to each other and crying until neither of them had any tears left. The front door opened just as they were each grabbing a tissue and Vivian entered the kitchen holding a wine bottle in each hand. "I come bearing gifts!" she announced but stopped walking when she saw Marietta and Eleanor. "I'm too late." She set the bottles down on the table and collapsed into a chair. "What do you mean, you're too late?" Marietta asked. "I planned on getting us all drunk and emotional but you two beat me to it."

Eleanor dabbed at her eyes. "Not to worry, Viv. Wine is always welcome." She grabbed three glasses from a cabinet and carried them to the table. "We are emotional but not yet drunk." Marietta pulled the cheesecake out of its box. "I've got dinner." "It smells delicious." Eleanor lifted the corner of the foil on one of the trays. "Not that." She motioned to the cheesecake. "This. Now you sit down and let me cook for you." "Cheesecake for dinner?" Marietta nodded. "Abuella swore it was the cure for any heart ache." To her surprise, Eleanor actually laughed and wrapped an arm around each of them, pulling them in for a group hug. "Thank you, both. I don't know what I'd do without either of you." "Good, 'cause you're stuck with us." Eleanor stepped back and reached for a tissue that she used to blot the tears from her eyes. "Come, eat." Marietta dished up three plates of desert while Vivian poured the wine. Eleanor took a seat, pulling out her phone. As she plated the cheesecake, Marietta watched Eleanor. She looked at her phone, frowned and then slammed it onto the table. "Everything okay?" Marietta set a plate down beside Eleanor's cell phone.

Eleanor flipped her phone over to show a news article with Gary's picture. "It's the comments people make." "Don't read them, sweetie," Vivian said. "They don't deserve your attention." "I haven't even made his final arrangements yet and people are already saying terrible things about him and the department." "Only a select few idiots, El. Most people are going to show their support for you and the boys. Did you see your front porch tonight?" Vivian asked. Eleanor leaned her head into her hands. "I don't know how to do this. I've been a cop's wife for over twenty years. All of a sudden, I'm a cop's widow. What do I do now?" "Well, the first thing you are going to do is drink this glass of wine." Vivian set a glass on the table in front of Eleanor. "And then the three of us will start to figure it out together." "And eat that cheesecake," Marietta said. "It's a wonder you've stayed so thin." Vivian took a forkful of the creamy desert. "Mmm…this is so good." Eleanor sat back and picked up her glass of wine, downing half the glass in one sip. "I've never been a drown my sorrows in booze kind of girl but I feel like I could make an exception for my husband being murdered." She finished the rest of the wine.

Marietta stopped chewing the bite of desert she'd just scooped up and Vivian set her glass of wine on the table. "What?" Eleanor asked, shrugging. "It's true." "I'd say you're well within your rights on that one." Marietta got up and grabbed the bottle off the counter, pouring wine into Eleanor's glass all the way to the top. She then topped her own glass off. Eleanor's admission hit her hard. Ricky could have been the one that died. "There's plenty more where this came from." "I miss him so much already. I can't even imagine going to bed tonight without hearing his voice one more time." A tear trailed down Eleanor's cheek but she made no move to wipe it way. "Oh, sweetie, I know." Marietta placed a hand over hers. "None of us ever expected anything like this. I can't begin to imagine how you feel." The knowledge that Ricky had been the first one to pull the car over sat heavy on her shoulders. If the guy hadn't run off; if he'd chosen that intersection to start shooting—well, it could have been any of them in Eleanor's place right then. "Anytime you want to borrow Antonio, he's yours," Vivian said. "I mean, if you miss the farting, dirty laundry all over the place, and the occasional urine on the bathroom floor, I can hook you up." Eleanor sniffed and cracked a tiny smile. "Gee, thanks, Viv. You're a really good friend."

Marietta went to the powder room and grabbed the box of tissues off the back of the toilet. When she returned to the kitchen, she found Eleanor and Vivian laughing hysterically. "What'd I miss?" she asked, setting the tissue on the table in front of Eleanor. "Vivian was just reminding me about the time the guys had to chase that naked guy down the street." "You mean the one that had jumped through the window?" "Yes!" Vivian and Eleanor said at the same time, then dissolved in a new round of laughter. "He thought he was some kind of super hero or something. He kept running back and forth in the middle of the road yelling I can fly!" Marietta said. "I'd forgotten about that!" Vivian laughed too. "And poor Gary was the one who had to tackle him to the ground. I remember he came home that night going on about how some guy's junk had rubbed all over his uniform and he had no choice but to burn the clothes." Eleanor grabbed a tissue and dabbed at the corners of her eyes. "Gary could be a little dramatic sometimes." "Not just Gary. Antonio whined for days about having the guy's naked ass rubbing all over the backseat of his car." "Dinner table conversation is about to get a whole lot more boring around here without Gary's

stories." They all fell silent then. The quiet was interrupted by heavy footsteps running down the steps. "Hey, Mom! I smell Mexican food!" Jackson appeared in the doorway to the kitchen. "Oh, hi, Ms. Vivian. Hi, Ms. Mari." "You're in some kind of luck—Ms. Mari cooked." "Jameson!" Jackson yelled toward the upstairs. "You gotta get down here!" Marietta walked over to the counter and grabbed a serving spoon from a drawer. She peeled back the foil wrap from both the trays. Jameson walked in to the kitchen looking exhausted, his eyes red rimmed. "Got anything good? I'm starving." "All this food here and you are hungry?" Eleanor asked. He shrugged. "Nothing was appealing." "How does homemade enchiladas and rice and beans sound?" Marietta asked "Load me up," Jackson replied. "Your food is always the best." "Too bad you don't get any." Jameson intercepted the dish that Marietta had filled and handed to Jackson. Jackson responded by smacking his brother on the back of the head. Jameson put the plate down and grabbed Jackson up in a headlock. "Say you like to wear pink women's underwear

and I'll let you go!" "You like to wear pink women's underwear!" Jackson flipped around so that he slipped out of his brother's grip. "Come on, you two. There's plenty for both of you. You know I only know how to cook for a crowd." Marietta dished up a second plate of food. "Fine. But only because I'm hungry." Jameson picked up his plate and settled on one of the stools at the breakfast bar. "Tony around this weekend?" Jackson asked Vivian. "Maybe he wants to hang?" "I'm sure he'd love to see you both," Vivian replied. Eleanor frowned. "We've got a lot to do the next few days, boys." "I know, Mom. I just thought, since we were home, we'd hang out." "Yeah," Jameson said. "We haven't seen Tony since summer." Eleanor held her hands up in surrender. "Okay. Fine." Marietta set a hand on her shoulder. "It would be good for all of them, Eleanor." "This food is so good." As Jackson spoke, a couple bits of rice flew out of his mouth when he spoke, dotting the front of his t-shirt. Marietta laughed. "I'm glad you like it." "Before you disappear again, there's stuff on

the porch that needs to come inside." "I got it, Mom." Jameson ran to the front door and returned a few moments later loaded down with boxes and bags. When the boys finished their meals and headed back to their rooms, Eleanor leaned back in her chair and sighed. "It's like it hasn't hit them yet." "Everybody copes in their own way." Vivian raised her glass. "We drink. They play video games and eat copious amounts of Mexican food." "I'm Puerto Rican! It's Puerto Rican food!" Marietta said, holding up the tray of enchiladas. "See?" "It all looks the same to me." Vivian gave her friend a sly smile. Marietta muttered some curses in Spanish as she scooped up a plate of food for herself. "You wouldn't know good food if it slapped you in the face." Eleanor let out a heavy sigh. "I have to find a funeral home. I don't even know where to begin. We never planned for any of this. There was supposed to be time." Vivian set her plate down next to the one with her cheesecake and dropped into her chair. "Mason's Funeral Home has done several officer funerals. They work closely with the police department and offer their services at a discount for officers."

"How do you know that, Viv?" Marietta asked. "Tony Jr. is friends with their youngest boy, Mark. They play basketball together. I've talked to his mom several times at games. Her father was police officer that was killed in the line of duty so she and her husband decided that was how they could give back." "I guess it would make sense to start there then." Eleanor took a long sip of her wine then set the glass down with another in a long line of heavy sighs. "Tell them I sent you," Vivian said. "That I know Laura." "I could go with you if you want?" Marietta offered. "I'm no expert but it might help." Eleanor nodded. "I'd like that." She leaned forward and rested her head on her arms on the table. "I don't want to do any of this." Vivian wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "I know, honey. I know." A little ding sounded an incoming text on Marietta's phone. She swiped it open and read the message. "Ricky says he and Connor are heading the team to go after the guy that shot Gary. They've had a tip come in and they are on their way to check it out." "Tell them to be careful," Eleanor said. "We don't need to plan two funerals." Just then Vivian's phone indicated an incoming

text as well, hers from Antonio. She read it out loud. Vasquez is on his way to get the guy. I should be there. This fucking sucks. "Tell him Ricky will keep him in the loop." Marietta pointed to her phone. "I'll tell him to." A minute later, Antonio typed back. She read that one aloud as well. "He says, Can you come home now?" Vivian closed her eyes and took a deep breath, "I'm so sorry, Eleanor. I have to go." Marietta reached over and touched her friend's hand. "Everything okay?" "Antonio’s having a rough time dealing with everything. I don't want him to be alone but I want to be here for Eleanor." Eleanor waved a hand without looking up. "Go. He needs you. I understand." "I'll stay here as long as Eleanor needs me. You go take care of your honey." Marietta squeezed her hand lightly. "He needs you." Vivian gave them both hugs. "I love you girls. Call me if you need anything, El. I mean it." Eleanor waved a hand toward the front door. "I will. Go take care of your man. You're lucky to still have him."



Eleanor's words brought tears to her eyes as she put on her jacket and left the house. She knew her friend didn't mean anything bad by it but the words cut through her, knowing that Antonio was part of the reason that Gary was no longer alive. They all knew it wasn't her husband's fault. Everyone except Antonio anyway. The drive home was short, thankfully. Traffic had lightened considerably now that the evening rush hour had passed. The house was uncharacteristically dark when she pulled into the driveway. Aside from the light shining from Tony's windows, it looked like no one was home. Unlocking the front door, she pushed it open and

called out like she always did. "I'm home! Antonio, you here?" The silence that responded caused her heart rate to kick up a couple of notches as she walked down the hallway toward the kitchen and family room. "Antonio! I'm home. Where are you?" Still no response. Adrenaline flooded her body as she practically ran to the back of the house. He'd just asked her to come home not twenty minutes earlier. He wasn't in the kitchen and the couch in the family room was empty. Vivian ran to the stairs, taking them two at a time as she called her husband's name over and over with no response. Her son's door stood open. He lay on his bed with his headphones covering his ears, holding a text book up in front of him. Their bedroom door was closed when she stopped in front of it. No sound came from the other side. She gripped the knob with one hand and made the sign of the cross with the other. "Please, God, let him be okay." Taking a huge breath, she pushed the door open. The ceiling fan was on but all the lights were off. She could barely make out the shape of someone on the bed. Flipping on the lights, she saw Antonio sprawled out on his stomach, one arm hanging off the bed. "Antonio!" Vivian ran across the room and then

stopped before touching him. Several empty bottles littered the night stand. One had fallen over and a puddle of liquid had formed on the carpet. The air held the scent of stale beer. Very gently, she reached in and felt for a pulse on his neck, all the while watching for some sign of life. As her icy cold fingers made contact with warm Antonio's skin, he grunted and rolled over. "Antonio! Thank God! You scared the crap out of me!" One of his eyelids fluttered open. "What kind of bullshit is that? Of course, I'm alive." He lifted an arm and halfheartedly reached toward her. "I'm just drunk. Very, very drunk." He let his arm fall limply on the bed beside him. She crawled across the bed and curled up next to him, resting her head on his shoulder and wrapping an arm across his chest. "You scared me." "Hmmm…" he replied. "I thought you'd done something stupid." Antonio turned his head to look at her through watery, bloodshot eyes. "You thought I killed myself?" "Well, yeah." He chuckled, kind of. "Baby girl, if I wanted to do that I'd eat my gun, not drink myself to death. It's a hell of lot quicker." "What the hell, Antonio? You've thought about it?"

"Well, yeah. Once or twice over the years. It's no big deal." She sat up and glared down at him. "It sure is a big deal!" He reached up and pulled her back down on the bed. "I'm sorry I scared you. I didn't try to kill myself, nor do I plan to in the future." Vivian relaxed slightly. "Well, I don't know what you expected me to think. You text and tell me you need me to come home then I find you face down on the bed." Moving his hand up onto his chest, he wrapped it around hers. "I was already wasted when I texted. I just missed you. Didn't mean to scare you." "I thought you were going to get some sleep." "I did. And then the captain called and woke me up. Couldn't sleep again after I talked to him. So, I figured I'd help you clean out the fridge." He motioned to the empty bottles. "You're welcome, by the way." "Smart ass." She slugged him lightly. "Everything okay with the captain?" "Internal Affairs is opening an investigation in to the shooting." His voiced hitched a tiny bit. "Me and the new guy, Connor, are the subjects of interest because we had the most interaction with the suspect." "Seriously?" She sat up and looked down at him

again. "Yes. They think there is more to the story than what anyone is saying." "There were witnesses. Everyone saw that guy shoot Gary. It's probably on Gary's body cam. And Marietta said that Ricky told her Connor didn't cuff the guy when they detained him." Antonio lifted a hand to his forehead and rubbed the area over his eyes. "I know. I know. Captain says its standard procedure though. I'm officially on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation." "I think you could use a few days off anyway. This could be a good thing." She threaded her fingers with his. "You could spend some time with Tony. We could put the Christmas lights up and go get a tree." He grunted. "Right now, all I want is another beer." "Maybe take a break on the beer for a bit, baby?" "I'm not a fucking child. I'm a grown ass man who wants a beer." He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. The momentum of the move took his torso along for the ride, sending Antonio to the floor. "Antonio! Are you okay?" Vivian scrambled to the other side of the bed and looked down at her husband sprawled on the floor.

"I think I'll just lay here for a little while. Just wait for the room to stand still. Hand me a pillow, would ya?" Vivian shook her head as she grabbed a pillow and handed it down to him. "I'll go get some dinner started." Antonio had already rolled to his side and tucked the pillow in under his head. He waved her off. "Call me when it's ready. I just need a little nap." Standing up, she straightened her clothes. "You're a hot mess, baby. You need so much more than a nap." The only response was a loud snore from Antonio. She left the room, closing the door behind her and headed toward the stairs. "Hey, Mom." Tony was sitting up on his bed, his headphones in his lap. "Hi, honey." She walked in to the room and gave him a hug. "Are the twins home yet? I wanted to give them a call but wanted to make sure Ms. Eleanor had a chance to tell them first." She ruffled his too long curls. "Yes, they're home and they know about their dad. They want to hang out with you while they're here." Tony gave her a sad smile. "Okay. I'll text them later. Once I figure out what to say. It's not like I can text and say sorry some junkie asshat killed

your dad." "First of all, watch the language around your mother. Second, they are your friends. Just tell them how you feel. They will appreciate hearing from you." Tony flopped back on his bed. Laying there like that, he looked so much like his father. "This whole thing just sucks, Mom. Why did it happen? What if it'd been Dad?" "I've been asking myself those same questions all day long and the truth is, I don't have any answers right now." He sat back up. "Dad can be a real jerk sometimes. And he yells a lot, but he's my dad, you know? I don't know what I'd do if he were killed." She sat down beside him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. "I know, honey. I know. He's not perfect but he's ours and we need him as much as he needs us. Let's just be thankful he is still with us." Tony leaned his head on her shoulder. "It's hard to thankful when I am actually kinda mad at God for taking Mr. Gary away." "That wasn't God, honey. That was a crazy man with a gun who was probably high on something." He shrugged. "Either way. It's still not fair." "No, it's really not. I'm going down stairs to start dinner. Do you have any homework?" "Just a little Spanish to finish up."

She smiled and ruffled his hair once more. "Easy A, then?" "Yeah." He laughed. "It helps hanging around Ms. Mari and Mr. Ricky when they are arguing. I've learned all the cool swear words." Vivian laughed too. "They do get pretty excited." Leaving Tony to his homework, she headed downstairs and into the kitchen. As she prepared dinner, she thought about their conversation. Every now and then, a loud snore sounded through the floor making her giggle. Finding him on the bed like that had scared her. He looked so much like Gary's lifeless form in the hospital. She pulled out some vegetables to chop up for a salad. Antonio's come home text had cut her visit short and she hadn't gotten to eat any of Mari's tasty food. As she sliced an onion, Antonio's words echoed back in her mind. If I wanted to do that, I'd eat my gun. Moisture filled her eyes but she blamed it on the onion. Picking up the tomato, she chopped it in to bite sized pieces. It's a hell of a lot quicker. A random tear escaped the corner of one eye, her heart aching for the man she loved. Pealing and slicing the cucumber, she thought about the added stress of an IA investigation. She'd have to keep a close eye on her husband. He was already in a bad way. The knife slipped, slicing the

side of her finger. "Son of a bitch!" She threw the knife into the sink and turned on the water, running the injured finger under the cold stream. Her tears ran in sync with the water as all of the stress of the last twentyfour hours overcame her. Antonio was far from perfect but he was hers and she'd be thankful every day for the rest of her life that he was still there with them.



If she'd actually slept, she could say she was up before the sun but really all she'd done was toss and turn all night. Gary's side of the bed felt so much more empty than usual, knowing he'd never sleep there again. Everything felt different now. Bigger. Emptier. Colder. If only she could wrap her head around the fact that Gary was really and truly gone. She spent half the night waiting for the phone to ring with her goodnight call and the other half reminding herself that it would never come again. When she did manage to doze off, her dreams were filled with blood and hospitals and Gary dead.

The house had a chill to it when she finally dragged herself out of bed. Before getting in the shower, she walked down the hall and adjusted the thermostat. A rush of cold air came up the steps making her shiver. Winter was going to be hard this year if it were already this cold. As Eleanor headed back to her bedroom, she heard talking from Jackson's room so she tapped lightly and turned the knob to open the door. Jackson was still in bed, sound asleep. He must have been talking in his sleep; a habit he'd had since childhood. By day, the older of her twins by ten minutes stayed stoic. His life was always organized, planned, and arranged around a tight schedule. He kept his emotions close until he fell asleep. Then, anything that had upset him in his waking hours came back to be freely expressed while he slept—a trait he'd inherited from her. Jameson, the "younger" twin, was the exact opposite. He showed every emotion he had like an open book. Everyone always knew when he was upset, happy, hungry or whatever. Once he fell asleep, though, a certain peace would settle in around him, giving his passionate soul a chance to rest and recharge. She closed Jackson's door and returned to her own room. Even with the valve wide open, the hot water of her shower couldn't seem to warm her. She shivered as she stood under the hot spray, making a

mental list of all the things she had to get done before the end of the day. A trip to the funeral home to make arrangements, florist to choose something for the casket and the altar, the church to choose a day and time for the mass…it was all so overwhelming. The crack in the tile from the day Gary'd died caught her eye. She ran a finger down it, feeling the tiny chips of ceramic press against her skin and the emotions of the day she'd broken it came back in a flood. Tears ran from her eyes, mixing with the soap she rinsed from her body. Gary'd been gone almost 48 hours and it felt like a lifetime since she'd heard him laugh or felt his arms around her. She stood there, crying and hugging herself until the water began to run cool. She shut off the taps and dried off her body. Wrapping herself in a robe, she headed to her closet and dug out a pair of black leggings and an oversized black sweater. Gary's death had pulled all the color from her life. She'd need an appropriate black dress for the services so add shopping to the list of things to get done. Etiquette dictated a woman in mourning wear all black, right? Stopping to look at herself in the mirror, Eleanor ran a brush through her tangled hair. No amount of makeup would hide the redness of her face or puffiness of her eyes but a hairbrush she could manage. Once the knots were out, she

twisted it into a bun high on her head and called it quits. Downstairs, she could practically see her breath in the air. "I could have sworn I turned the heat on last night. So, why is it like fifty-eight degrees in here?" The screen on the thermostat read error. Eleanor shut it off, counted slowly to ten like Gary'd showed her the last time it happened, then turned it back on. The error message reappeared. "Freaking wonderful!" Eleanor smacked the plastic cover of the thermostat. "Really? Today? I can't deal with this right now." Her eyes burned with the desire to cry once more but her tear ducts had nothing left. She turned the thermostat to off and grabbed a sweater out of the hall closet. The kitchen felt even colder than the hallway. Pulling open a drawer, she grabbed the tiny screwdriver Gary had put in there and a couple of double A batteries. Using the screwdriver, she opened the thermostat case and pulled out the old batteries, replacing them with the new ones. After snapping the cover back on and screwing it in place, she flipped the switch to on. The screen went completely blank for a second and then the error message returned. "Of course, it couldn't have been that easy!" She stomped a foot and threw her elbow back into the wall. The drywall gave way and her elbow sunk

into the material. "Damn it!" Resting her head against the broken thermostat, she closed her eyes and inhaled slowly. "You got this. You just need to call someone to look at it." Saying the words out loud help some. Standing up, she walked back to the kitchen. Filling the tea kettle, she set it on the stove and turned on the burner. Maybe it would warm up a little if she cooked something. Looking for the skillet, she got sidetracked and started to unload the dishwasher. Halfway through that, she remembered the load of clothes in the dryer so she went to the laundry room to turn the dryer on fluff. On her way back, she remembered breakfast. As she pulled bacon and eggs from the refrigerator, the tea kettle let out a shrill whistle, making her jump. The entire carton of eggs flew through the air and landed on the tile floor. Eleanor slid down the front of the refrigerator to the floor, pulling her knees up to her chest and crossing her arms on top of her knees. She surveyed the damage. Every single egg in the carton had managed to free itself of the container. Shells clung to the cabinets, egg yolk ran down the front of the stainless steel stove and sticky nastiness spread all over the tiles. The tea kettle still whistled and spit steam out of its spout but Eleanor didn't move. When she heard the sound of feet pounding down the steps, she still didn't move.

"Mom!" Jameson entered the kitchen wearing only a pair of shorts. "Are you okay?" He hugged himself, running his hands up and down his arms. "And why is it so flipping cold in here?" Eleanor looked up at her son, with his wild, too long hair standing up in every direction. He looked so much like Gary it hurt. "I dropped the eggs." Moving carefully to avoid the sticky egg mess, her son leaned over and shut off the burner with the tea pot. "Did you slip?" he asked her. She shook her head. "Nope." "Then why are you sitting on the floor like that?" "I'm tired. It seemed like the easiest thing to do." She rested her chin on her forearms. "I didn't get much sleep last night." Jameson settled in next to her, his own knees pulled up and his head resting on his arms in the same way. "It's okay, Mom." "The thermostat is broken. I tried to fix it the way Dad showed me but it won't work. I can't get it to work!" Tears rolled down her cheeks. "We'll call someone to fix it. Don't cry, Mom." Jameson wrapped an arm around her and pulled her toward him so her head rested on his shoulder. His gentle demeanor was so much like Gary's it brought out a couple more of those tears. "I miss him. I don't know what to do without him."

"I miss him too. Last night all I did was dream about him." Eleanor turned to look at Jameson. "What kind of dreams?" He shook his head slightly. “I definitely don't want to describe them." "I'm sorry, baby. You shouldn't have to be dealing with that." "People die, Mom. That's what Dad always said when he talked about DOA's." The hitch in his voice and moisture in his eyes belied the detachment of his words. "People do die, but we are talking about your father. My husband and best friend in the world. How do I—we—go on without him?" He shrugged. "I guess we just do. Dad would be pissed if we didn't." "Jameson!" She swatted at him, lightly. He laughed, raising his hands in mock surrender. "What? You know it's true." "All right, I'll give you that. He wouldn't want us moping around. The sadness is just too powerful right now though. How's your brother doing with everything?" "You know Jackson. He refuses to have any emotions ever." She patted him on the knee. "I know it looks like that on the outside but your brother is a river than runs deep. He'll seem fine until one day

something will happen—a song, a particular memory—and then it will all come out at once." "That's not too healthy." "Everyone deals with grief differently." Jameson jumped to his feet. "I'm going to take a shower and get dressed. What time are we going to the funeral home?" "After breakfast. I have to get some things together but first I need to clean up this mess." She motioned toward the eggs splattered all over the kitchen. "Do you want some help?" Jameson asked. "I got it. You can take the garbage out though when I'm done so the house won't smell like rotten eggs all afternoon." "Okay. I'll get Jackson up while I'm up there." She nodded. "Shower first. Then wake him. He was up pretty late talking to someone named Stephanie." Jameson laughed. "Ah, Stephanie. You'd like her, Mom. She's kinda nerdy like my brother." "How long has he had this girlfriend he hasn't mentioned?" He shrugged. "He claims they are just friends. They met in a class and studied together. Now they talk a lot and hang out but he's never said anything else about her." "Just friends, huh? They were on the phone until after midnight. I know this because I was

awake much, much later than that." They heard footsteps in the upstairs hallway. "Sounds like he's already up. I'll never beat him to the shower now." Jameson took off running to the stairs, taking the steps two at a time. She heard them exchange words and then some kind of scuffle. An hour later, the kitchen was mostly clean, they'd had breakfast, and Eleanor stood by the front door yelling to her sons. "I'm leaving!" "Wait!" Jackson called back. "We're coming!" Thunderous footsteps overhead told her they were racing to the steps. It didn't matter if they were twelve or twenty, those two boys would always compete with each other for everything. On a normal day, she'd laugh and tell them to knock it off. On this day, she felt torn between tears and annoyance. How could they go on like nothing had changed? "Hey guys! Miss Mari is going to meet me there. You don't have to do this." Both boys appeared at the top of the steps, Jackson with Jameson in a headlock. "We're coming for moral support." "It's going to be a difficult appointment," she replied. "Which is why we need to be there with you," Jackson said, letting go of his twin. "It's what Dad would want."

"Okay." She turned and opened the front door. "I'll go warm up the car. Meet me outside as soon as you have your jackets on." The cold air bit into the bare skin of her face as she practically ran to the car. Apparently, the temperature had dropped over night much more than she'd thought. It took a couple of tries for the battery to catch and the engine to turn over but finally the car started. At some point, she'd have to pick Gary's truck up at the station. Gary's truck. Until that moment, she'd forgotten all about it. She sat there, waiting for the windows to defrost and thinking about what she was about to do. Never in a million years would she have been expecting to plan the funeral of her forty-eightyear-old husband. The ever present tears leaked from the corners of her eyes once more as she leaned her head back against the seat. Why? That was the one question she couldn't seem to stop asking and no one had an answer for. Why Gary? Why now, at this time in their lives? She didn't want to grow old by herself. Spending her golden years rambling around in that big empty house alone held absolutely no interest to her.

"Why did you have to go and leave me?" she yelled to the ceiling of her car. "This is not how things are supposed to be!" The front door to the house opened and her boys came barreling through it like they always had. Eleanor wiped at her eyes and plastered on her best fake smile. Once Jackson slid in to the front seat and Jameson jumped in behind her, she put the car in gear. "You okay, Mom?" Jackson asked, looking at her with his eyes full of worry. "I'm fine." She wiped at her eyes with her sleeve. "Just had a moment. I'm having a lot of those lately." She reached over and turned on the radio, in an effort to give her something else to think about. The nauseatingly sweet strains of a love song filled the car, crushing her heart as she listened to the words. Tears filled her eyes once more. Jackson reached over and pressed the preset buttons until he found something a little less sad for them to listen too. Eleanor backed out of the driveway without saying anything, afraid her voice would give way to the flood of emotions she tried to hold back. The drive to Mason's Funeral Home and Crematory only took a few minutes. Traffic was lighter than usual so she beat Marietta there. Pulling in to a parking spot to wait, she listened as her boys talked about school work and final exams.

"When do your exams actually start?" she asked. It hadn't occurred to her until just then that they might be missing them. "Not until mid-December, Mom. We're good for a bit," Jackson said. "My classes are super easy this semester," Jameson said. "I'm just taking some gen-ed stuff since I still have no real idea what I want to be when I grow up." "It's probably time you started figuring that out." Eleanor caught her son's eyes in the rearview mirror. "They are going to insist you declare a major soon." "I know, Mom. I just like so many things but I don't really love anything." "Look, here comes Ms. Mari." Jackson pointed toward a little black sedan entering the lot. They got out of the car and met Marietta on the sidewalk. "You okay for this?" Marietta asked, hugging Eleanor. "Not like I have a choice, right? Come on, let's just get it done." Standing there in the parking lot, it hit her. They were arranging Gary's funeral. Until then it had been more abstract, his being gone, but once they made these arrangements, it would be final. Eleanor took a deep breath, set her shoulders and walked toward the main entrance.

They entered the funeral home and were met by a petite woman wearing a name tag that read Pamela. Soft music played in the background and the overwhelming scent of way too many flowers surrounded them. Jackson sneezed immediately. "Sorry," he mumbled as he pulled a tissue from his coat pocket. "My allergies are acting up, I guess." "Good morning," Pamela said. "How may I help you today?" "I, um, need to—" Eleanor took a deep, steadying breath. "I need to plan my husband's final arrangements. He's, um, dead." Marietta gave her a look but didn't say anything. "Oh, dear." Pamela placed a hand on her arm, her expression understanding and kind. "Are you Mrs. Hart?" Eleanor nodded. "Yes. And these are my sons Jackson and Jameson and my friend Marietta." "Hello, ma'am," Jameson said. "Nice to meet you," Jackson said. Marietta nodded and smiled but didn't say anything. Pamela folded her hands over her heart. "Please accept my deepest condolences for the loss of such a hero. All of our first responders and their families have our utmost respect and appreciation here at Mason's. Yours especially, and we will do

everything we can to help you through this most difficult time." "Thank you very much. I would appreciate the assistance." "If you'll just follow me, I'll settle you in one of the family conference rooms. You'll be working with Mr. Mason today. He handles all the funerals for first responders." Pamela led them down a wide hallway to an open door about halfway down. Inside the room sat a large, oval table surrounded by eight leather backed chairs. A large bouquet of white lilies and greenery sat in the center of the table. An unfamiliar odor lingered just below that of the strong scent of the flowers. "Please, help yourself to water or whatever you'd like." Pamela motioned to a small table in one corner that held bottled waters and various snacks. "Mr. Mason will be right with you." She left the room, closing the door halfway behind her. Eleanor pulled out one of the chairs that faced the door and sat down. The boys hit up the snacks and talked quietly between themselves while Marietta sat down next to Eleanor. "Nice place," Marietta said. "You know for a funeral home and all." "Yeah, I guess. It smells funky though." "That's the scent of death," Jameson said as he pulled out a chair and sat down.

Jackson smacked him on the back as he sat down. "Nice, butthead." "What? It is. Have you ever smelled anything else like it?" "Okay, you two. That's enough," Marietta said. Eleanor only half listened as she opened the folder of documents she thought she'd need based on the what she'd found on the funeral home's website and spread them out on the table in front of her. As her fingers slid across their marriage license, she paused, letting her finger tips trace the letters of Gary's name. "It still feels so surreal." "I know, sweetie." Marietta squeezed her hand lightly. "It's just going to take time." The door opened. A large man filled the space. His shoulders were so wide, they nearly touched both sides of the frame. The grey flannel suit and crisp white button shirt he wore fit him perfectly. His dark grey eyes held a gentle kindness that was reflected in his smile. "Good morning, I'm Timothy Mason. I'm so sorry to be meeting under these circumstances. I've met Officer Hart on several occasions. He was a good cop and a great man." He walked around the table to where Eleanor sat and gave a little half bow and offered her his hand. "Please accept my deepest sympathies." "Thank you, Mr. Mason. I also wish we were meeting under different circumstances." She

motioned to where her boys sat. "Those are my sons Jackson and Jameson and this," she nodded at her friend, "Is Marietta." "You young men strongly resemble your father's features." To Marietta he said, "I'm glad you could be here for Mrs. Hart today." "Please, just call me Eleanor. It's too hard to keep hearing Mrs. Hart. I'm not even sure I'm considered a Mrs. anymore." She used her sleeve to swipe at the couple of tears that leaked from her eyes. Timothy sat down in the seat to her right and placed one of his large hands on the arm of her chair as he shifted to look her in the eye. "You most certainly are a Mrs. That won't change until you decide it should." Eleanor shook her head. "Gary was my first and my only love. I could never imagine ever loving anyone else, let alone consider marriage again." "I understand those emotions very well. Allow yourself to grieve, but when the time comes, also allow yourself to live your life." Eleanor sat up straight in her chair and wiped at her eyes once more. "I can't begin to even think about anything beyond these arrangements." "Eleanor brought all kinds of paperwork with her today. What will we need to get started?" Marietta asked. "I checked the list on your website," Eleanor

said. Timothy looked at all the papers on the table and nodded. "I think you have all the things you need. May I?" He reached over and pushed a few of them in to a pile. "I'll need to make one copy of each of these pages." Timothy left the room with her papers but was only gone for a minute or so. When he returned, he handed them back to her along with another sheet. "That is an outline of what our services usually look like for fire and police. You can pick and choose the things you want or don't want, but once you tell me your wishes, we will handle all of the details for you. Since he died in the line of duty, there are some things that will happen no matter what. For instance, the calling hours will be full. And I have seen officers come from hundreds of miles away to pay their respects on behalf of their departments." "There's so many things to—" She threw her hands in the air and sighed, fighting back the latest round of tears. "Let's just take it one step at a time." Marietta clasped Eleanor's hand in hers. "Do you want the casket open or closed?" "Will his wounds be visible?" Timothy shook his head. "No. Not at all." "Dad would hate having all those people staring at him," Jameson said.

Eleanor nodded. "I agree. He didn't like that kind of attention." "So, shall we leave it closed then?" Timothy asked, scribbling a few notes on a small notepad. "Yes. I think my son is right. Gary wouldn't want to be on display." "Do you want a full service, open to the public, or a private one with public calling hours?" Eleanor shrugged. "Can't we skip the calling hours? People can say their goodbyes at the service." Timothy shook his head. "I don't recommend it. Having a separate viewing event is likely to help with crowd control at the actual service." "We are Catholic. We need a mass," Eleanor said. "Okay. Would you like me to get in touch with the church or do you want to?" Timothy asked. "I suppose I should speak to Father myself." Eleanor sighed and leaned back in her chair. "So many details. So many people to talk to." "Amazing Grace," Jameson said. "What?" Eleanor and Marietta asked at the same time. "Dad always said he wanted Amazing Grace played at his funeral." "By bagpipes," Jackson said. "How do you two know this and I don't?" Eleanor tried not to sound as upset as she felt about

this new revelation. They shrugged in unison. "I don't know," Jameson replied. "Maybe he didn't like to talk to you about that kind of stuff. I guess he figured we'd tell you if it ever came up." "What else has he talked to the two of you about?" "He did tell me once he wanted to be cremated because the thought of spending eternity in a box underground scared him." "Jameson Michael! Are you serious? He actually told you that?" He nodded in response. To Marietta, she said, "Why didn't he tell me these things?" "I don't know, El. Maybe he thought you couldn't handle it? Or, maybe he just thought there was time to discuss it later." "How would that work?" Eleanor asked Timothy. "Could we do both? Have calling hours and then cremate him?" Timothy twirled his pen in his fingers then tapped it lightly on the table. "Yes, we can do that. You basically borrow one of our caskets then later on, we take care of the remains separately." Eleanor inhaled deeply, trying to calm her racing brain of its wild, disorganized thoughts. "Okay, then, that's what we will do." "How would three days from now work?"

"We have to wait that long?" Eleanor had hoped to get through it all in the next day or so instead of dragging it out. "There has to be an autopsy and the medical examiner has to sign off on the cause of death." Eleanor jumped up from her seat. "Are you freaking serious? He has holes in his body from the rifle rounds. I saw them myself. What's there to sign off on?" Marietta stood up too, wrapping an arm around her waist. "Here." Eleanor accepted the tissue her friend offered her, blowing her nose and wiping at her eyes. "I'm so sorry, Eleanor." Timothy spoke softly. His voice had a calming effect to it she hadn't expected. "The manner of death was a gunshot wound. That isn't necessarily the direct cause though." "Oh, that. Well, I'll save the ME some time. The cause of death was all the holes in his body and all the blood. So much blood." She dropped into her chair, the sobs shaking her entire body. She crossed her arms on the table and buried her face in them. Marietta rubbed tiny circles on her back. One of the twins—she had no idea which one—moved in to the seat beside hers and held her hand. Timothy stood up and walked over to the table in the corner, grabbing a bottle of water that he

placed in front of Eleanor with the box of tissues. "I wish I could make this easier, I really do." When the sobs finally subsided, Eleanor sat up straight and smoothed her hair behind her ears. "I'm sorry for my little meltdown, Mr. Mason. It won't happen again." Even she didn't believe that promise but it made her feel more in control to say it. "It's absolutely okay if it does." "You don't have to be strong all the time, Mom," Jackson said. "What's next on the list?" Marietta asked. Timothy consulted his notebook. "Would you like the calling hours to be morning or evening?" "Can I make a suggestion?" Marietta asked. "Of course," Eleanor replied. "That's why you are here." "They need to overlap the day and the evening shifts so that all of his friends have an opportunity to attend." "That's true. Gary knew so many people." "Everyone loved Dad." Jameson’s eyes watered up. "He was awesome." Timothy consulted his planner. "How about from two until seven on Wednesday? Then the funeral on Thursday. It's a long day but I have a feeling we are going to need it." Eleanor nodded. "You think you can handle that, boys?" "Whatever you need, Mom." Jameson grabbed

a tissue from the box and blew his nose. Jackson also nodded his agreement. "Dad deserves to go out in style." "Then it's settled," Eleanor said to Timothy. "The only other thing I need you to do is chose a remembrance card and a program design. Once you do, we will get them printed for you. Oh, and did you want us to order floral arrangements for the calling hours or do you want to do it?" Anxiety seized Eleanor. Her chest tightened and anger filled her. "What difference does any of that make? He's dead. It's not like he's going to read the program." "It's just part of the process, El." Marietta placed her hand on Eleanor's. "It's for you and the boys as much as in Gary's honor." "Let them figure it out, Mom," Jackson nodded toward Timothy. "Just make sure you have something in them that says he died a hero." Timothy nodded and made a note on his paper. "I'll make sure the florist understands that requirement. I do want you to tell me your thoughts on a verse for the cards. You knew him best. Did he have a special prayer he liked?" Timothy handed her a booklet with pictures of mass cards and bible verses. They settled on Gary's favorite verse, blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God and another one that Eleanor liked, Greater love has no one than this,

that someone lay down his life for his friends. The rest of the details she left up to Timothy. Eleanor gathered up all her papers and tucked them back in to her folder. "Is that everything then?" Timothy stood and extended his hand. "It is. For now, anyway. I'll call you if I have other questions. I'm so very sorry for your loss. It's been a pleasure meeting all of you, despite the circumstances." Eleanor accepted his hand in her own. "Thank you for your help." "Are you okay?" Marietta asked as they walked to their cars. "I don't know if I'll ever be okay again." "I can't imagine how you feel but I want to be sure you know Ricky and I are here for you. Anything you need, okay?" Marietta squeezed her hand. "I mean it, chica." "I wish you could turn back time. Keep my husband from being shot." Marietta reached up and tucked a stray piece of hair behind Eleanor's ear. "I wish I could too, sweetie. I really, really do. I know it doesn’t feel like it now, but you will get through this. You're so much stronger than you know, Eleanor." She shook her head. "It feels like I died right along with Gary. I miss him so much my heart aches from the pain of it." "I don't know how to make that go away. All I

can do is hug you and provide as much wine and cheesecake as you need." Eleanor cracked a tiny smile. "You're a good friend, Mari. I love you." "I love you too." Eleanor hugged her friend and said goodbye. The boys were quiet in the car. As soon as they got home, she went straight to her room, threw herself down on her bed and ugly cried.



"Marietta just called. Calling hours are on Wednesday at Mason's Funeral Home and the funeral will be Thursday morning." Antonio sat on the couch, a beer in his right hand and the remote control in his left, pretty much the same as he had since the night of the shooting. He made no move to acknowledge her presence, let alone the fact that she'd actually spoken to him. "Antonio!" Vivian stepped between him and the television. "What?" He looked up at her, his eyes red rimmed and blood shot. Her beautiful husband looked like he'd been run over by a truck. Twice. What she wouldn't do to go back in time and

change that night. "Did you hear what I said?" He shook his head, pushing the mute button on the remote. "No. What?" "Gary's funeral is Thursday. Calling hours are on Wednesday." "Yeah. Okay. Thanks." He turned the volume up again and took a long swig of his beer. He held the empty bottle out to her. "Hey, babe, can you get me another one?" "It's barely noon. How many have you had already?" "I didn't ask for a lecture. I just want a damned beer." "Then get it your own damn self!" Vivian stomped out of the room and headed to the kitchen. So much for being the sweet, understanding wife. Not that she felt bad about it. He was being a total jerk. Her moods had been all over the place since the night Gary died. Antonio's version of mourning wasn't helping. All he did was eat, sleep, watch stupid television, and drink. He drank a lot. If she had to guess, he hadn't been fully sober since before the shooting. Food would help. At least it would be a good distraction for her. She opened the refrigerator and pulled out lunch meat, cheese, and assorted vegetables to make a sandwich. When she set them on the counter, she looked up and saw Antonio

standing in the doorway but she ignored him. "I'm sorry, Viv." Vivian sliced a tomato and then an onion without acknowledging her husband. Antonio hated to be ignored. It was the one thing she could always do that got under his skin. "Vivian." He stepped up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. "I'm sorry, babe." His breath smelled like alcohol. She wrinkled her nose and stepped out of his hold. "Fine." She started tearing lettuce, making a small pile, and ignoring his arms wrapped back around her. Antonio reached up and took the lettuce from her hand, then turned her to face him. "Look at me, Viv. Please." She looked up. "I'm fine. Just hungry." "The chief called while you were in the shower." "Oh?' He stepped over to the refrigerator and grabbed a beer. Screwing off the cap, he took a long swig. "Yeah. I have to go to IA tomorrow morning." Vivian went back to making sandwiches. "But you knew they were going to look into it. It's policy." "I guess." He reached over and grabbed a piece of ham from the package on the counter. "Could you make me one of those sandwiches too?" He ate

another piece of the ham. She swatted at Antonio's hand. "Already on it, but you gotta stop eating the lunch meat." "So, what do I tell them?" Vivian spread mayonnaise on the bread slices then began loading them up with cheese, meat, lettuce, tomato and onion. "Just tell them the truth. Gary saved your life." Antonio took a long drink of his beer. When he set the bottle down, it hit the counter so hard, a spout of foam shot out of the top of the bottle. "What if it's my fault? It feels like it's my fault, Viv. It doesn't feel like he saved my life. It feels like I caused him to die." Vivian stopped making the food and went to Antonio, wrapping her arms around him. "It's not your fault. How many times do I have to tell you that? The man with the gun killed Gary." "He wouldn't have if I'd killed him first." She leaned her head against his chest. "I'm sure you did everything you could." Antonio pushed her away and began pacing the kitchen. "I froze, Viv. I had a chance to take the shot and I froze. It's my fault." Vivian leaned back against the counter, gripping the edges with her hands to keep from smacking her husband to knock some sense into him. "Nothing I say will convince you otherwise until you are ready to see the truth for what it is. Gary's

death was an unexpected nightmare but not at all your fault." "Then why is internal affairs getting involved?" "Because that's what they do!" She took a deep, patience-steadying breath. "Why don't you call that guy on your shift that used to work in IA? Ask him what to expect. It will make you feel better." "Marks?" She shrugged. "I guess. Is he the one that did the year in IA?" Antonio nodded. "Yeah. Good idea. I'll call him." He leaned in and kissed her cheek. "You're the best, babe. I'm sorry I blew up at you." Vivian shooed him away. "Just go make your call. I'll put a sandwich on the table for you to get when you are done." Once Antonio left the room, she finished up the sandwiches, put the food away, and carried hers to her office. She had an article deadline that afternoon about a local city council meeting she'd covered while her husband was watching his best friend die in his arms. It seemed like a stupid thing to write about now when so much was happening but she enjoyed her part time job with the local paper and always honored a deadline. An hour later, when she'd finished her sandwich and sent off the final draft to her editor, Vivian wandered out into the living room. Antonio was sound asleep, slouched in his favorite chair, the

remote control on the floor where it had fallen from his hand and the empty plate from his lunch resting on his stomach. Carefully moving the plate so as not to wake him, she carried it to the kitchen and stowed it in the dishwasher. Tony wouldn't be home for another hour or so. The quiet house invited her to take a nap of her own. The little sleep she'd gotten after leaving Ellie's house had been punctuated by nightmares of bullets and blood and lifeless bodies. Grabbing her laptop from her office, Vivian climbed the stairs and headed to her bedroom. Kicking off her shoes, she climbed in to the middle of the bed and leaned against the pile of pillows she placed there every day when she made the bed. At least, she did that on the days Antonio had off. When he worked at night, he came home and crashed immediately making it an exercise in futility to even bother making the bed. Once she logged in, Vivian pulled up the local news website. Headlines and photos of the crime scene and Gary's death filled her screen. Local Cop Shot Down in Cold Blood Cop Killer High on Drugs at Time Of Shooting Mental Illness: Is The Shooter Really Responsible? The last one started her blood boiling before she even clicked the link. A picture of Antonio holding an injured Gary in his arms sat under the bold-faced

words. Surprisingly, the facts of the story were pretty close to the truth. Where the speculation kicked in on the part of the writer had to do with Gary's arriving on scene, lights flashing and sirens blaring. The article questioned concerns for mental illness, police procedure in a high-tension incident like this one, and flat out stated that he thought if Gary had used a different approach, the outcome could have been radically different. What sort of reporter bashes the victim when his body had hardly gone cold? No one could understand the sort of adrenaline-based response that takes over on a call like that. Gary, and the other officers, only heard one thing, officer needs assistance. She knew from close to twenty years as a police wife some things were pure instinct. That man had made a choice to take drugs that influenced his behavior. He'd made a second choice to fire that rifle at another human being. That’s all there was to it. His choice had a ripple effect and he probably didn't even realize it. Gary's dead. Antonio's a hot mess. And Eleanor and her boys—they had such a long, grief laden road ahead of them. "I really hope Eleanor doesn't look at this website." She closed the computer and set it on the bed beside her. Sliding down the pillows until she could roll on to her side, Vivian tucked her hands

under one of the pillows and let her eyes close. Sleep moved in quickly but so did the dreams. Antonio stumbling toward her, covered in blood, and not knowing if it's his or someone else's. People yelling. Sirens screaming. The ground shaking as someone called her name over and over again. "Mom?" Her body shook lightly. "Vivian!" She shot up into a sitting position. "What!" Tony stood at the side of the bed, looking worried. "Are you okay? I kept calling your name but you wouldn't wake up." Vivian pushed her hair behind her ears and rubbed at her eyes. “Yeah, I’m okay. I was just having this really intense dream. I’m sorry if I scared you.” Tony smiled. “It’s okay. I just wanted to let you know I have to be at the school by six for my game. You think Dad will go since he’s not working?” “I’ll go wake him up and tell him to plan on it.” “Awesome! Thanks, Mom.” He left the room. “Dinner will be ready in an hour!” she called after him. “Okay!” he yelled back. Tony was such an awesome kid. Good at everything he died, basketball held his heart and soul. So far, he seemed to be coping with Gary's death fairly well, something that kind of worried her. She'd expected him to have fears about Antonio and the job that would surface in the wake

of the shooting but he wasn't saying much. Lord knows, the whole thing had brought to the surface all the worries and fears she'd tucked away years ago. When they were newly married, Antonio worked at the shipyard driving a forklift. The hours had been long but it paid well and the work was relatively safe, compared to being a cop anyway. One evening he came home holding a flyer he'd found somewhere advertising hiring for the police department. "This is what I want to do with my life," he'd said, putting it on the counter in front of her. "But you have a good job," she'd replied, concerned that he was actually being serious. "I can make a difference being a cop. I need to do something important, Viv." He'd looked so serious all she could do was nod and pray he'd never make it through the hiring process. She spent fifteen years of their marriage as a police wife. It had its ups and downs but those first few years had been the worst. "Aren't you afraid he'll die?" someone had once asked her at a birthday party. "I sure hope you have a lot of life insurance on him," someone else had said. Vivian remembered crying herself to sleep that night. Antonio loved being a cop from day one. It truly had been the calling he'd almost missed. She,

on the other hand, hadn’t planned to live the life of law enforcement and it took a long time to adjust to. If not for Gary taking Antonio under his wing, and through him, meeting Eleanor, Vivian would have cracked under the pressure the first year. Now, all these years later, she was back to being terrified, and yes, afraid he'd die. Gary did everything right, followed all the rules, and knew all the policies. In the end, it didn't matter. None of it mattered. Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, Vivian sat for a few minutes looking out the window and letting her body wake up. The short nap she’d intended to take had lasted over an hour. Exhaustion had apparently taken over and now she was struggling to come out of it. The sun had begun to move lower on the horizon. The worst part about the fall and winter had to be the short days. Vivian watched as the sparse remnants of leaves on the trees in the back yard picked up the late afternoon sun. The reds and oranges became bright and brilliant for a moment or two before the sun shifted once more. Sighing, she pushed up from the bed and stretched. Slipping on some slippers, Vivian headed downstairs to wake Antonio and start dinner. The television was on when she made it to the first floor. Antonio sat in the chair, watching a news story about the shooting.

“Why are you torturing yourself?” she asked, entering the room. He shrugged. “I can’t seem to change the channel. I just keep watching the same things over and over again.” Vivian walked over and sat on the arm of the chair. Antonio reached up, wrapped his hands around her waist, and pulled her on to his lap. Resting his head against her chest, he groaned. “I wish it would all just go away.” She ran her fingers through his thick, messy hair and massaged his neck with her fingertips. “I wish I could make it go away for you.” “Gary was my best friend. I can’t believe I’ll never see him again.” “I can’t imagine what you are going through right now. All I can say is that it will get better eventually.” He shook his head. “Every time I close my eyes I see it all over again.” She leaned her cheek against his and gently stroked the back of his hand with her fingertips. “I know, baby. I know. Maybe you should see a counselor? Someone to help you process all of this.” He sat back in the chair. “No. I don’t need anyone at the department thinking I’m crazy when IA is investigating.” She pressed a palm to his cheek. “No one is

going to think you are crazy.” “You don’t know how they think, Viv.” Vivian stood up. “How about I go make some dinner and then we go see our son kick some butt on the basketball court? Maybe a little distraction would do you good?” Antonio shrugged. “I could eat. I don’t think I’ve even seen Tony play this season.” “You haven’t. He’s gotten really good too. Scouts have been checking him out from several schools.” His expression changed to one of surprise. “Really? How did I not know this?” “You’re usually working or sleeping. Life goes on around here too, you know.” Sadness crept in to his dark eyes. “I know. I’m sorry. I’m not here enough.” Vivian shrugged and smiled. “It’s okay. Lucky for you, I’m a strong, independent woman and I got this all covered.” Antonio stood up and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “I know how lucky I am. I’m gonna take a quick shower.” Vivian listened as he took the steps two at a time and walked the hallway to their bathroom. Once she heard the water running in the shower, she headed to the kitchen. Tuscan chicken macaroni and cheese was Antonio’s favorite meal so she set to work making a big pan of it.

“That smells so good, Mom.” Tony walked into the room wearing his basketball jersey and a pair of warm up pants. “Dad says to tell you he’ll be right down.” She picked up a serving spoon and began filling a dish with food. “Thanks. Have a seat and I’ll make you a plate so you can go finish getting ready.” Tony sat down in his favorite place at the table. Vivian placed a large, steaming plate of food in front of him. He grabbed his fork and dug right in. “This is so good, Mom,” he said, around a mouthful of noodles and cheese. Vivian laughed. “I’m so glad you think so. Slow down though, buddy. I don’t want you to puke.” "Something smells really good." Antonio appeared in the doorway. His wet hair hung over his forehead and the buttons of his polo shirt were buttoned incorrectly, but he had a smile on his face. "Your favorite." She held up a plate she was filling for him. "Tuscan chicken mac and cheese?" He clapped his hands together and rubbed them. "Load me up, baby. I'm starving." Vivian added a couple extra scoops to the plate and set it down in front of her husband before filling a plate for herself. "So, Mom tells me you got scouts checking you out?" Antonio said to Tony between bites.

Tony nodded. "Just a couple smaller schools so far." "Hey, a scholarship's a scholarship." "I'm proud of you no matter what schools want you," Vivian said. "Thanks, Mom." Tony shoveled the last few bites of food into his mouth. "I'm gonna go finish getting ready." "We're leaving at five-thirty," Vivian said. "Put your dirty stuff in the dishwasher please." "He's growing up so fast." Antonio watched as Tony jogged from the kitchen. "When did that happen?" Vivian sighed. "I don't know. It's like I went to bed one night and the next day my baby was almost a man." Antonio ate the last few bites then pushed the plate away. Leaning back in his seat, he crossed his arms over his chest. "I've missed so much." "You work hard to provide for your family." "What's that even mean? If I missed his whole life—" He exhaled long and slow. "I always figured there'd be time. Now, though, I'm not so sure. Gary thought he'd have plenty of time to spend with his boys and look how that turned out?" "Tomorrow is never a guarantee, you know that. Doesn't matter what line of work you're in." "I guess." Antonio stood up and walked to the sink, where he rinsed his plate and set it in the

dishwasher. "It's almost time to go. I'm gonna go warm up the car." "All right." Vivian wanted to say something to make him feel better but she suspected Antonio was holding back tears and God forbid he ever let her see him cry. By the time she finished cleaning up, Tony ran down the stairs and out the front door. Vivian put on her coat, slipped her feet into her shoes, and grabbed her purse. When she got into the car, Antonio and Tony were going on about something to do with sports. She loved watching her son play and rarely missed a home game but she didn't share their true love of sports. The parking lot was filling quickly when Antonio pulled into the lot behind the school by the gym doors. "See you guys later!" Tony was out of the car and running toward the gym before Antonio had even turned the vehicle off. "There's going to be a big crowd tonight." Antonio motioned to the line of vehicles still pulling in to the lot. "You okay with that?" Antonio patted his hip and tapped his chest. She could see the chain that held his badge around his neck disappearing into the front of his shirt. "I'm good." The gym was loud and full of people when they

entered. Finding seats on the home team side, Vivian waved to a few other parents she'd gotten to know during the season. She couldn't be sure—the crowd was large and busy—but she thought she heard a couple parents right behind them say something about the shooting and Antonio. That was the last thing her husband needed to deal with. Vivian turned and gave them her best I dare you to say something stare. One of the women turned to a man next to her and whispered something to him. He narrowed his eyes, appearing to study Antonio then he nodded. The referees chose that moment to have the teams come out of the locker rooms, providing a distraction and preventing Vivian from saying anything. She didn't want to miss Tony's entrance. Turns out she didn't have to worry as the crowd roared when her son ran onto the floor. "That poor kid. Such a bright future ahead of him and it might be over before it even gets started." This time, Vivian clearly heard the woman behind her. "I feel bad for him. This is not the time for cops to be screwing up like they did. His life is wrecked because of his old man," the man replied. Her face burned as her blood boiled in her veins. She turned around, her fists balled at her sides in an effort to keep from hitting someone. "I

highly suggest the two of you stop talking about things you know nothing about." "Yeah? What makes you the expert?" Antonio turned to look at them. "Something wrong, Viv?" The woman's eyes widened and she froze as she recognized Antonio. Recognition also lit the man's eyes but he didn't keep quiet like his wife. "Just talking about another dumb cop getting himself killed because we don't know how to handle mental illness in this country." Antonio's expression transformed from questioning to rage in half a second. "What the hell does mental illness have to do with my best friend being shot down in cold blood?" The man shrugged. "See? If you had any training at all, you'd understand the stupidity of that question. I'm a licensed psychologist. I know what I'm talking about." "Stupidity?" Antonio eyes widened and his face turned crimson. Vivian touched his arm. "Antonio, the game is starting." He brushed away her touch, leaning in closer to the man. "Explain yourself." "That man didn't need guns and sirens. He needed compassion and understanding. Something you cops seem to know nothing about. Shoot first, ask questions later. If at all."

"Antonio." Vivian tried to get his attention, break through the look of death between the two men, but she couldn't. "Our son is on the floor." "My partner is dead! And he isn't the one that was firing the rifle off in the middle of a residential neighborhood!" "Then why didn't you do something to stop him?" "If I had, then you'd be telling me how awful I am for hurting the poor, stark raving mad lunatic." "Like I said, shoot first." The man made a rude gesture. Vivian could see the anger boiling up inside her husband. He was like a pressure cooker ready to blow. "Let it go, Antonio." She grabbed his wrist but he snapped his arm out of her hold. Antonio lunged before she could stop him, fists flying. He shoved the man backward, in to the crowded bleachers behind them. "Antonio! No!" Whistles blew, the buzzers sounded, and time out was called as the referees ran up in to the bleachers to try and pull them apart. The entire gym became complete chaos. Finally, one of the referees pulled her husband off the other guy and dragged him out of the bleachers. Tony stood at the bottom, his expression one of total horror when he realized it was his father being pulled from the crowd. "Dad!" he yelled over the crowd but no one

heard him except her. The two refs led Antonio out of the gym to where the officer on duty stood. Vivian ran after them, waving at Tony to stay put. She wanted to keep him out of it as much as she could. "He's one of yours." One of the refs pointed at the badge on a chain that had come out of Antonio’s shirt during the fight. "Thanks guys. I'll take it from here." "Would've been nice if you'd been inside. It's not in my job description to break up fights," the older of the two referees commented as they walked back toward the gym. "Next time you can handle the two juveniles fighting outside then and I'll do that." The door to the gym slammed shut without either of them replying. "Are you okay?" Vivian asked Antonio, reaching for him. He sidestepped her with a growl. "I'm fine." "Hey, man, you gotta calm down." "What're you doing here, Stuber?" Antonio picked up the hem of his shirt and dabbed at a cut over his right eye. "Extra duty. For dumbasses like you that start fights at a kids' game." "It wasn't me!" Antonio paced the hallway. "He was talkin' shit about Gary." "So, you decided to deck him? To protect

Gary's memory?" "He said the guy was mental and we didn't have to shoot him just because he was shootin' off a rifle in a neighborhood. If we had better training we'd have been able to stop him before anyone died." Stuber looked over at Vivian. "Is that what happened?" "Of course, it is!" He nodded. "Okay, man, you need to go take a walk. Let things simmer down some." Antonio ran his fingers through his hair. His cheeks still held a bright flush and his dark eyes were shiny with adrenaline. "My kid's playing. I want to watch the game." "Go cool down first. When you get calm, come back, and I'll go in with you." Antonio looked from Stuber to her and back again. "Come on, baby, let's go outside for a minute. I need some fresh air too." She reached for his hand once more. This time he let her touch him. "Fine. But then I'm watching the game." "Okay." She led him to the door and out into the cold night air. Instantly, the heat in her own skin cooled off. Antonio still looked like a volcano ready to explode though. He walked the length of the bus drive, cursing and punching at the air. Vivian waited, watching as her husband worked through his demons. Finally,

he joined her over by the doors. "Okay. I'm good." She reached up and pressed a palm to his cheek. "Are you sure you don’t want me to take you home? There will be other games." He shook his head. "No. I want to see Tony play tonight." "I'm not sure you should go back in there." "I said I'm staying!" Vivian didn't respond. She just pulled open the door and walked back into the building. Antonio followed behind her muttering curses under his breath. When they reached the gym doors she stopped and looked at him. "Behave. I mean it, Antonio. For your son." As she pulled open the door to enter the gymnasium, Tony ran by them dribbling the ball, then jumped and took a shot at the basket. The loud whoosh of the ball through the net brought on a huge round of cheers. "Woo Hoo! Go Tony!" she yelled as they found a seat on the bleachers, nowhere near where they had been. "Damn, he's really gotten good," Antonio said. She nodded. "He really has." "I hate that I've missed so many of his games." "He understands. Your job is who you are. We both know it and we both get it. I'm just glad you

are here tonight. He needs your support." What she really wanted to say was that he'd missed every game of the season so far and it took his sergeant forcing him to take the night off because his best friend died to get him there, but she held her tongue. It wouldn't have done any good at all to say any of it. Time felt incredibly short all of a sudden and the desire to spend as much of it together as they could won out over her need to pick that fight. When the game ended, they waited for Tony outside. Several college scouts had actually shown up and a couple wanted to speak with him. As soon as the final buzzer rang, she could see the tension and stress return to her husband's face. By the time they got through the doors, he was coiled tighter than a spring, bouncing on the balls of his feet with his hands shoved in the pockets of his jacket. The parking lot had almost cleared completely by the time Tony exited the building. He jogged toward them, his wet hair falling in his eyes and his gear bag bouncing against his hip. "Hey, buddy!" Antonio ruffled Tony's wild hair. "You did a great job out there tonight!" "Thanks, Dad. A couple school coaches felt the same way." "Hey, asshat!" They all turned to see the man that Antonio had fought with earlier that night.

"Back off. Don't ruin my kid's big night." "Pretty sure I'm not gonna be the one to ruin his life." To Tony, the man said, "Great game tonight. I'm glad your old man didn't do anything stupid to ruin it, like get into a fight with a complete stranger." "Dad?" Tony looked at him, questions in his eyes. "It wasn't me! It was him." He pointed at the man. "He started the whole thing." "Seriously, Dad? I saw it all." "Yeah," the man taunted. "Too bad it wasn't you that got shot up last night. Stupid, waste of skin." "Son of a bitch!" Antonio lunged, grabbing the man up by the collar. "If you don't shut your fucking mouth, I'm gonna cut your tongue out!" "And they say cops aren't violent." Antonio's other hand gathered in to a fist but Vivian grabbed on to it. "Don't! He's not worth it!" "Back off, Viv!" He shook his arm loose, and she stumbled backward falling to the asphalt. "Mom! Are you okay?" Tony dropped his bag and ran to her. "Look what you did, Dad! What's wrong with you?" Antonio turned to look at them, Vivian on the ground and Tony squatting next to her holding her hand, and something in his expression changed. He tossed the man to the ground and took off across

the lot. "Antonio!" Vivian scrambled to her feet as she called after him. "Let him go," Tony said. "I don't want him around right now." "I don't blame ya, kid. Your old man's a real piece of work." Tony jumped up and got right in the man's face. "Don't talk about my father. You don't know anything about him." "Come on, honey, let's get out of here." Vivian took her son by the arm and led him away. "Why does he do that?" Tony asked as they got into the car. "He's under a lot of stress right now. Cut him a little slack, okay?" She turned the car on and adjusted the defroster. "Sure. Why not? It's only my entire future at stake." Vivian patted his knee. "Drama much?" Tony crossed his arms over his chest and turned to stare out the window. "Whatever." She grabbed her phone and typed out a quick text to Marietta. Antonio took off. Can you ask Ricky to call him? He won't answer my texts. Will do. Marietta typed back. By the time they got home and Tony stomped off, she still hadn't heard from Antonio or Marietta. Going to the kitchen, she poured a glass of milk and

sat down at the table to wait. An hour and fifteen minutes later, a car pulled into the driveway. She ran to the front door and pulled it open just in time to see Ricky pull Antonio from the back of his patrol car. "Get your hands off me, dude!" He stumbled and fell to his knees. Even from where she stood, she could hear him slurring his words. "Get yourself together, man. You're acting like a dumbass." Ricky leaned down and scooped Antonio up under the arms. "I'm fine!" He shoved at Ricky, who reached behind him and grabbed Antonio's belt. "Let's just get you inside. You need to sleep it off, buddy." "What happened?" Vivian asked. "Found him at O'Malley's drinking his sorrows." Vivian stepped out of the way to let them pass. "Thanks for bringing him home, Ricky." "I can walk on my own!" Antonio pulled away from Ricky's hold on him and stumbled, slamming into the wall. His foot kicked out hard, breaking a hole in the drywall. "Fuck! Look what you made me do! I need a beer." Antonio stumbled his way to the kitchen, leaving Vivian and Ricky in the hall. "You gonna be all right with him like that?" Ricky asked. Vivian nodded. "Yeah. He'll pass out in his chair

yelling at ESPN." "This happens a lot?" She shook her head. "Not really. When his father died a couple of years ago and one other time that I forget why. He needs time to figure out how to handle all the emotions." "I don't like leaving you alone." A loud bang sounded from the family room. Ricky started to walk in that direction. "I need to check on him." "He just threw himself into his chair. It slides back and hits the wall. Tony's here. I'll be fine." Ricky stopped walking. "Are you sure?" "Yup. Listen. The television will turn on in a second." As soon as she finished her sentence, the sound of the nightly news echoed toward them. "He'll be out cold in ten minutes." "You sure you don't need me to do anything?" Ricky looked back over his shoulder toward the family room. "Taze him, maybe? Or I could cuff him and lock him in a closet?" Vivian laughed and pushed Ricky toward the door. "I'm sure. I'm just going to go to bed myself. It's been a hell of a couple of days." "All right, then. I'm gonna head into work. They are still trying to get a lead on the guy that shot Gary." "I know I fucked up! You don't have to remind me!" Antonio yelled from the family room. "How the hell did he hear us?"

Vivian shrugged. "Sometimes I'd swear he has superpowers. Thanks again for getting him home safely." "No problem. You take care, Viv, and call me if you need anything else. Okay?" She smiled at his super serious expression. "Okay. But I'll be fine." Vivian pulled open the door and followed Ricky out onto the porch. "Be safe out there." "Always." Ricky gave her a little salute then slid in behind the steering wheel. He was gone from the drive before she could lock the door. Antonio's snores echoed down the hall so she climbed the steps and headed to their bedroom. She considered being mad at him but in the end all she could do is be grateful she still had him around to do stupid things. Antonio could be a real ass sometimes, but he was hers and she loved him.



Marietta poured herself another glass of wine. What did it matter if she finished the whole bottle now? Walking from the kitchen to the living room, she checked the time on her watch. Nine thirty. Ricky would be at work soon. Another non-existent date night. When she'd gotten the text from Vivian, she'd almost ignored it. Good old-fashioned Catholic guilt forced her to open it and read the message though. Ricky put on his uniform and left ten minutes later to find his drunk friend before he did something to jeopardize his job. She could still smell the cologne he'd used after his shower. They were supposed to be heading to

their favorite Mexican restaurant where she planned to drown her sorrows in the world's biggest margarita after she gave him the news. Another negative test. Another month older and further away from starting the family they'd wanted for the last ten years. She just needed to accept that they were destined to grow old childless and alone. Eleanor had her boys, Vivian had Tony, and she had a lifetime of negative pregnancy tests and the crushed hopes and broken dreams to go along with them. It had been almost two hours since he'd left and not a word. Grabbing her phone, she set down the now empty glass of wine and picked up the half empty bottle before heading to her bedroom. Setting the bottle on her dresser and tossing the phone on the bed, she stripped out of her clothes and pulled on a loose nightgown. Cotton flannel. No need for the nice, sexy stuff now when the only company she had was the bottle on the dresser. Her phone sounded, indicating an incoming text. Ricky. She snatched it up and swiped to open the message. Found him. Drunk and stupid at O'Malleys. Dropped him at home and headed to work. Call you later. She typed back. Glad you got him. Be safe.

Love you. No need for him to know she was upset. Then she'd have to explain why and Ricky didn't need that on his mind when he had to be focused for work. Always. His usual reply made her smile a little through her annoyance. That had been their routine for all twelve years of their marriage. Now it was her turn to get drunk and stupid. Well, drunker anyway. She turned the television on and searched for a rerun of Law and Order: SVU. Once she found what she was looking for, she climbed under the covers and leaned up against the headboard, bottle in one hand and her cell phone in the other. It took exactly three minutes for the tears to come. "No more!" she yelled at Benson and Stabler. "I'm done with this pregnancy bullshit. No more roller coaster for me. I want off this stupid ride." Downing a long swallow of wine, she grabbed a throw pillow and threw it across the room, hitting the bureau the television sat on. "Plenty of women never have kids. They have careers and they travel and do amazing things." Another swig from the bottle. "Who am I kidding? All I do is laundry and dishes and yard work and grocery shop and scrub toilets." Her phone chimed. She looked at the screen and saw Ricky's name.

Someone called in a location on the tip line. Going after the guy now. Can you text Viv so she can tell Antonio? She set the bottle down on her nightstand and replied. Be careful, please. I'll let Viv know. Eleanor too. I love you. Eventually, the phone chimed again. Love you too. Should she be worried he didn't give his usual response? The guy they were going after was dangerous and Ricky was more than likely in work mode. It just felt—foreboding. Instead of texting, she dialed Vivian's number. Vivian answered in a whisper. "You okay, Mari? It's late." "I know. I'm sorry. Ricky just texted. Said they got a tip and they are going after the guy. He thought you might want to tell Antonio." "That man is crashed out in the living room, sleeping off at least half a bottle of Jack Daniels. A steam engine couldn't wake him up right now. Thank Ricky again for me for getting him home. I'll tell him in the morning. Will you keep me posted?" "Of course. I'm going to call Eleanor now." "Do you think you should?" Vivian asked. Marietta sat up higher in the bed. "Why not? I'd want to know." "Me too. If they get the guy. But if we tell her every time something like this happens, she'll get her hopes up and if it doesn't work out, she has to

deal with that all over again." "So, you are assuming they won't find him tonight?" Vivian sighed. "No. I'm just not sure. Do what you think is right." "You've known her a lot longer than I have. What should I do?" "If it were up to me, I'd wait. It's late. Hopefully she's finally getting some sleep. But, make sure you call or text me if you hear anything else. I'm wide awake now." "Okay. I've finished three quarters of a bottle of wine myself so I am just going to sit here and wallow in a little self-pity." "Another negative test, huh? I'm so sorry, Mari." She shrugged, but then remembered Vivian couldn't see her. "It's okay. Some women just aren’t meant to be mothers, I guess." "I wish I could give you a hug right now." Marietta dabbed at some dampness in the corners of her eyes with the bedsheet. "I'm fine. Really. I don't even hope anymore. That way I can't get too disappointed. Besides, Eleanor needs us right now." "That doesn't make your pain any less, just because hers is so prominent." "Yeah, I totally see how you can compare a baby that never existed with a man who was

murdered. Yup. Makes perfect sense, Viv." "You know that's not what I mean." Vivian sounded frustrated. "You don't have to be a bitch about it." "I'm sorry, I know I'm being bitchy. I'm just gonna call it a night. If I hear anything, I'll let you know." "Okay. I'll keep my phone on next to me. Sweet dreams, my friend." "Yeah, you too." Marietta disconnected the call and slid back down in the bed, feeling bad for snapping at Vivian. The wine had gone to her head and made her eyes heavy. She set the phone volume on high and turned off the light by her bed, leaving the television on for background noise. She had no idea how much time had passed when her phone rang next to her head. Fumbling for it, she turned it on and put it to her ear without looking at the screen. "Hello?" she mumbled. "Did I wake you, babe? I'm sorry. Go back to bed." Marietta sat up. "No! I'm awake. What happened?" Ricky let out a long breath. "We were too late. He'd been there. Left about ten minutes before we got there and no one seemed to know where he'd gone." "Where did you go looking?"

"Dive bar on the other side of town. Apparently, they serve good burgers." "You stopped to eat there?" Marietta asked, confused. Ricky chuckled. "No. But our guy did. Hey, I've gotta run. I'll see you in the morning." "Okay. I love you." "I know," he said, teasing her. Ever since he'd seen Princess Leia tell Han Solo she loved him and he said I know, Ricky threw it out there occasionally thinking he was as romantic as his favorite movie character. The next time she woke up, Ricky was sliding into the bed beside her. "Mmmm, what time is it?" "Seven thirty." He wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her in close, pressing a kiss to her shoulder. "You drink that whole bottle yourself?" "It wasn’t the whole bottle." Ricky chuckled. "Woman, there isn't even enough in there for Father Thompson to do Mass on Sunday." She shrugged and snuggled in close to Ricky. "He just has to ask Jesus to turn the holy water in to wine and we will be good to go." "If your mama had heard that, she'd be dragging you off to confession right now." "Good thing she still lives in New York. You gonna let me finish sleeping off that water now or

do you want to make me breakfast?" This time Ricky outright laughed. "Water? I never heard of the process going in reverse. Go to sleep. We have nowhere to be this morning." "Okay. Good night." She closed her eyes and waited for sleep to return but it didn't. All she got instead was a throbbing headache, right between her eyes. A reminder of why she'd consumed all that wine in the first place. She should have told him when he got in bed. Ricky's breathing had slowed to a nice, even pace and his light snores every so often told her he was asleep. Too late to give him the news. She gently lifted his arm and slid out of the bed, setting his arm back on a pillow so he wouldn't notice her absence. Quiet as a mouse, she grabbed some clothes and headed to the hall bath to take a shower, hoping the hot water would ease the tension in her body and take the headache away. With Thanksgiving less than two weeks away, she needed to get to the store and buy a turkey so it would defrost in time. She wanted to invite Eleanor and her boys to dinner so she used that as an excuse to call her friend. And if the whole near miss of the night before slips out then so be it. Eleanor deserved to know what was going on to avenge her husband's death. Showering and dressing quickly, she headed to the kitchen for some aspirin and a gallon of water.

Wine never affected her so strongly. It had to be a combination of the alcohol and all the events of the last week. As she reached for her phone, it rang and Vivian's name flashed across the screen. "Hey, Viv." "How're you feeling this morning?" "Fine, why?" She knew exactly why Vivian was asking but had no desire to rehash her infertile ovaries right then. "Just wondering." Vivian was a good friend for letting it drop. Marietta grabbed a bottle of aspirin from the cabinet by the sink and filled a glass with water. "I was about to call Eleanor. Nothing happened last night. He was gone when they got to the dive bar he was supposed to be at." "Damn it! I hoped you'd just slipped into a drunken coma and not called." "Hold on a sec." Marietta tossed the aspirin in her mouth and drank the entire glass of water. "Okay, I'm back. Had to take some aspirin." "You hungover from wine?" Vivian sounded surprised. "I thought wine flowed in your veins." Marietta laughed. "I know, right? I think it’s a combination of everything going on. The stress around here is ridiculous. Ricky is constantly on edge. If he's even home. He's become completely obsessed with finding that guy. How's Antonio?"

Vivian laughed and she heard someone yelling in the background. "He's hungover. And now he's yelling at me for basically existing too loud for his pounding head." "Ricky didn't tell me much. What got him all wound up last night?" "Some jerks at Tony's game said some things about Gary and the shooting that they shouldn't have. Antonio called them on it and Tony saw. They got into it and Antonio took off." "Tony okay?" "Yeah. Just mad at his dad. But he's a teenager, so that's nothing new." "You tell Antonio he owes me a margarita. Ricky and I were headed out to dinner when you texted." Vivian exhaled. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wreck date night. I just didn't know who else to ask for help. I used to ask Gary to go round him up—" "Yeah. It’s okay. I don't mind. We gotta have each other's back." "Well, girl, you know I always got yours." "I'm gonna give Eleanor a call now and then head to the supermarket. Thanksgiving is like ten days from now and with the funeral stuff coming up in a couple of days, I just want it done." "I know," Vivian replied. "I've got to shop too. Antonio's sister and her family are going to be here. Should be a real joy given the mental state my

husband has been in." "He and Danielle still on the outs?" Vivian laughed. "Aren't they always over something or other? The day they get along for a full twenty four hours I expect to see a pig fly past my kitchen window." Marietta chuckled. Antonio and his sister had a constant cycle of love-hate. "I'm going to invite Eleanor and her boys over here. I don't want them to be alone." "That's a good idea, Mari. I hope she accepts the invitation." "Me too. I'll talk to you later, okay?" "Yep. Stay safe out there, I hear the holiday crowds are amping up along with the stupidity levels." Marietta laughed. "You too. Talk to you later." She ended the call and pushed the speed dial for Eleanor. "Hello?" her friend answered softly. "Hi, El. It's M—" "Mari, hi." Eleanor sounded absolutely exhausted. "Are you okay, sweetie?" Marietta sat down on the couch and leaned back against the cushion. "I'm still in bed. Couldn’t really sleep last night. It's harder to get it out of my mind when I'm alone in my room." "Do you need anything? I'm heading to the

store in a few minutes." Eleanor kind of laughed. At least it sounded like an attempt. "I've got enough food here to feed everyone on the USS Abraham Lincoln." Marietta reached or the notepad and pen she kept in the drawer of the coffee table. "Meals still coming?" "Yes. Several each day. Apparently, one must get fat when they are in mourning." "People don't know what to do so they cook. Food is therapy for everyone involved." Marietta jotted down a few items she didn't want to forget at the store. "I suppose. How's Antonio doing? I heard he's on admin leave." She set the notebook on the table and leaned back in to the cushions again. "Ricky had to go pull him out of O'Malley's last night. They are doing the mandatory IA investigation after a shooting." "But he never fired his gun." "I know," Marietta said. "That's what I don't understand either. It's like they are looking for something to pin on him." "I doubt it's like that." The buzzer on the dryer sounded so she got up and walked to the laundry room. "Well, Antonio is taking it pretty hard. He got into a fight at Tony's basketball game and it was a total hot mess." "I hate that he is blaming himself. Gary'd kick

his ass for it." Marietta pulled open the dry and put her phone on speaker, setting it on the dryer so she could fold the towels inside. "Ricky almost had to last night." They both laughed at that. "I'd feel better if they'd just get the guy that killed my husband. Having him running around out there makes me nervous." "I know. They almost had him last night. Ricky said they were barely ten minutes behind him. They'll catch up to him soon. They are hungry for his blood." Marietta set a folded towel on the dryer and pulled out another one to fold. "I kinda am too," Eleanor replied. "Is that bad?" Leaning against the dryer on her elbows, Marietta spoke softly in to her phone. "Oh Eleanor, no, it's not bad. He took something from you." "He took half my heart. I feel like it will never be whole again." Eleanor let out a long, shaky sigh. The sadness and melancholy tone of her voice said enough. Time for a subject change. "I was wondering if you and the boys wanted to join us for Thanksgiving dinner?" "Oh, Mari, I am not really in the mood to celebrate anything. Besides, my mom may be here still and I wouldn't wish that on anyone." Marietta laughed. Eleanor's mother could be a challenge under the best of circumstances. "Bring her along. It will keep things interesting."

"Can I think about it?" Eleanor asked. She returned to folding the rest of the towels. "Sure. As long as the answer is yes." That actually made Eleanor chuckle a little. "I'm sure the boys would like it so I guess we could drop in for a little bit." "Oh, I'm so glad! I'm heading to the store now but I'll check in with you later and if you think of anything you need, just shoot me a text, and I'll deliver it to your doorstep." "Thank you, Mari. You're a good friend." They said their goodbyes and Marietta headed to the store. Traffic was ridiculous and it took her twice as long to get there as it should have. She made a quick trip through the store grabbing all the things she needed and then got in line behind an older gentleman who took his time unloading his cart on to the conveyer. The rack of magazines and newspapers greeted her with various headlines about Thanksgiving stuffing recipes and tried and true Christmas cookies. Someone had stuffed a copy of the local paper in front of her favorite magazine so she pulled it out to give her a better view of the newest royal couple on the magazine cover. The front page of the paper had a head shot of Gary and a head shot of the suspect that shot him next to each other on the front page. The headline read Mental Health Care in the US Needs Help!

A quick scan of the article reviewed the events of the shooting in brief and then went on to explain, in detail, all the things the writer of the article felt should have been done to help the suspect. Not a word was said expressing sorrow over the loss of Gary. She shook her head. "I don't understand what's wrong with the world today." The older man looked over at her. "That's why I put that paper there. I couldn't in good conscience pay for that kind of rubbish. I'm not saying mental health care isn't an issue. It's a huge problem. But it's not the issue in this instance. Can you imagine blaming the victim for his own death?" "Thank you so much for saying that. It's wrong and I don't even know who I could complain to." "You can start by burning that paper." Marietta laughed. "I'd love to but I think the store would take issue with a fire in the checkout line." The old man laughed as well. "I got nothing to lose though. Let me do it." "Everything okay over here?" A man wearing a manager's name tag approached them. "Fine. Just fine." The man answered. "We were just discussing the stupidity of this article." He motioned to the paper. "I'd be happy to return the paper to its location for you, if you like." The young manager held out

his hand and the older man gave it to him. "As long as its location is in a trash bin," Marietta said as the manager walked away mumbling something about how sensitive everyone was lately. The man in front of her paid for his groceries and then looked back at her. "Hold tight to your beliefs and don't ever let anyone tell you how to think, young lady. I can see you got a good head on your shoulders." He nodded toward her turkey. "Happy Thanksgiving to ya." Marietta finished paying for her things and headed home, the old man on her mind. As she passed the police station she caught sight of Gary's patrol car parked in front, wrapped in black. A small crowd of people stood on the sidewalk near the vehicle and a large memorial of flowers and other items had grown beside it. At least part of the city realized the sacrifice he'd made that night. No one had died but Gary and that should mean something.



A car pulled in to the driveway. Mason's Funeral Home had sent a driver to take them to the calling hours the day before, but today a limousine sat outside. "Come on, boys! It's time," she called up the stairs. Both of her sons appeared at the landing at the same time. They wore dark suits and shoes buffed to a perfect shine, the way Gary had taught them. A memory of him sitting them down and teaching them to shine their shoes while he buffed his boots brought a heavy mix of joy and sadness. The twins had been maybe five at the time. He told them that the measure of man came from two sources: the

value of his word and the shine on his shoes. That same day he also showed them how to give a proper handshake. "You look really nice, Mom," Jackson said as he reached the bottom of the steps. Complimenting a woman—another trademark thing Gary had taught them "Thank you, sweetheart. You and your brother are absolutely dashing. Your father would be proud." "Dashing? Who even says that anymore?" Jamison asked. Eleanor shrugged. "I guess I do." Jameson noticed the limo in the drive. "Do we really have to go in that?" "Yes. We do." Jameson scowled. "Dad would hate it." "Actually, he loved limousines. But he'd definitely think it was too flashy for him. I'm just not up to driving today and the processional could be long." Jackson looked at his watch. The watch Gary had given to him for his birthday the year before. "We need to get out of here if we want to be on time." Grabbing the door knob, Jackson pulled open the front door and motioned to his brother and mother to go ahead of him. "Please make sure the door is locked," Eleanor

said as she stepped outside, holding Jameson's arm. "I know, Mom." Jackson closed the door. He stopped to double check the knob, just like Gary had taught them. She'd never noticed before how many things Gary'd passed on to the boys. Together they walked the slick walkway to the car. It had rained the day before and then the temperatures had dropped below freezing so everything was icy. The driver stood by the car, holding the door open when they approached. "Hello, Mrs. Hart. Boys. I'm Joseph, your driver for today. I am very sorry for your loss." Eleanor accepted his outstretched hand and assistance into the car. "Thank you, Joseph. It's been very difficult. We appreciate you being here for us." Once they were all settled in to the car, Joseph drove then to the same church she and Gary had been married in. Instead of walking the aisle in a white dress, watching Gary wipe at the tears he'd denied until his dying day, she'd be the one crying, dressed in black this time. It took less than ten minutes to get there but it felt like an hour. It seemed like only yesterday they were making promises of forever and sealing their love with a kiss. Their relationship had gone full circle. She just wasn't ready to say goodbye to the love of her life nor did she relish the idea of sharing that goodbye with hundreds of other people.

As Joseph turned down the street toward the church, Eleanor sucked in a breath. A local news channel's van was parked about a block from the church. A camera man wandered around with one of the anchors interviewing people. She prayed they wouldn't try to talk to her. The sidewalks on both sides of the road were filled with people. She spotted a group of older men wearing U.S. Veteran hats, standing in salute as they drove by. An intersection contained rows of police motorcycles from several cities, their officers standing beside them holding their helmets under their arms. At the entrance to the parking lot, two fire trucks were parked, opposite each other with their ladders extended and a huge American flag hung between them. Members of their church stood at the doors holding stacks of programs. A little girl with a long, blond pony-tail wore a blue and black ribbon in her hair that bounced as she walked along holding hands with an adult. A group of children from the grade school across the street held signs that read Rest in Peace Officer Hart, We Love You and We Love Our Police Officers. They all wore blue ribbons pinned to their jackets. Tears ran down her cheeks as she saw people, young and old, gathered to celebrate and mourn a man they'd never met. Joseph pulled in to the lot and drove around to the back of the church. Marietta and Ricky stood

on the sidewalk, waiting, as the limo came to a stop. Taking a deep breath and then exhaling long and slow, she took each of her boys' hands in hers. "No matter how hard this is today, and no matter what anyone says, always know that your father loved you and was extremely proud of both you." Jameson patted her hand. "We know, Mom." "Yeah, we do," Jackson added. She pulled them in close for a quick hug. "I love you, both. I don't know how, but we are going to get through this day." The door opened and Joseph offered her his hand. "May I assist you, Mrs. Hart?" "Yes, thank you." She allowed him to help her from the vehicle then waited as Jackson and Jameson joined her on the sidewalk. "Eleanor!" Marietta scooped her up in a tight hug. "Hi, Mari." "Did you see the press out front?" Marietta asked. Eleanor nodded. "Yeah. I hope they stay outside too." "Ricky's got some of the cops watching the doors during the service to keep them out." "Hello, boys," Ricky said to the twins, shaking hands with each of them. "Your father was a great man. I'll miss him as both my friend and my brother

in blue." "Thank you, sir," Jackson replied. Jameson nodded. "Eleanor." Father Thompson approached them. "I'm so sorry for the crowds, dear. Gary's death is such a huge loss to the entire community." "Thank you, Father." She dabbed the corner of her eye with a tissue she'd been holding on to. "We knew there'd be a lot of people, just not this many." "Would you like a few moments alone inside before we begin?" "Yes. I think we would. Thank you again, Father." "Of course, my dear." Eleanor, Jameson, and Jackson followed him into the sanctuary of the church. The overwhelming scent of a hundred different types of flowers assaulted them as they entered the large room. "They've been arriving since yesterday." Father Thompson motioned toward the many arrangements surrounding the altar and the casket at the front of the church. "He was loved. There is no doubt about that." "Wow, Mom. I bet Dad had no idea how many people cared about him," Jameson said. "Gary touched a lot of lives, Jameson," Father Thompson said. "Yeah, I guess," he replied. "You boys can go ahead." She motioned to the

place where Gary lay. "I need a moment." "What do we do?" Jackson asked as they walked toward the front of the church. "Say your goodbyes, idiot," Jameson said. "It's not like he can hear us. Seems stupid talking to a dead body." Eleanor turned to Father Thompson. "Jackson is very literal. Please excuse him." "Oh, Eleanor, dear. Everyone grieves in their own way. Those boys have a lot to work through. They are still in shock, even if they don't know it." "I've been worrying about them. Neither of them seems phased by any of this. No tears, no anger. It's like it either hasn't hit them yet or they don't care all that much." "Of course, they care!" Father Thompson said. "They look and sound so much like their father, I imagine they handle their emotions in much the same way he did as well." "Gary was definitely one to bottle up all his feelings. I'd only seen him cry once or twice our entire relationship." Jackson and Jameson stood in front of the casket, shoulder to shoulder. They weren't moving or speaking that she could hear but they had both appeared to lose some of the stiffness in their stature as they stood there. "Go ahead, Eleanor. Take a moment with them. I'll open the doors to the visitors in a few minutes."

"Thank you, Father." He nodded and walked toward the foyer. Eleanor approached the boys slowly, not at all anxious to see her husband's form laying so still in that borrowed box. "Hi, Mom," Jameson said, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. There were tears in his eyes but his voice stayed strong. "How come the casket is opened? I thought we told them closed," Jackson asked. "More than likely they left it like that for us. I'll make sure it gets shut." "Okay," he replied. "If you boys are done, I'd like a minute with your father alone?" "Of course. Come on, Jack, let's go sit." Jameson took his brother by the arm and led him away. When she was alone, Eleanor stepped forward and got her first look at Gary's body since the hospital. She'd avoided seeing him at the calling hours the day before, afraid she would break down uncontrollably. Today though, she felt like she needed one last look to convince herself he was really gone. "Hey, baby," she whispered. "I sure do miss you." Looking around to make sure no one else could hear her, she stepped a little closer. "Remember our first date, when you took me for

the sunset picnic at the beach? You were so nervous your hands shook when you handed me a tuna sandwich. I never told you but I hated tuna then. I'm still not a fan but I spent the last twenty or so years pretending to tolerate it so you'd never know our entire relationship was built on a lie." Eleanor laughed quietly. "Imagine keeping such a stupid secret all these years." Reaching out, she touched the back of his hand with her finger tips lightly then took his hand in hers. For a brief moment, she could have sworn she felt warmth in his hand. Ridiculous amounts of hope filled her. Could it all have just been a horrible mistake? "Gary?" She squeezed his hand a little tighter, almost expecting him to squeeze back. Hoping he would; that it had all be some kind of cruel joke. She studied his face. His features were still so strong and defined but the warmth he always radiated was gone. "We were supposed to have a hundred more picnics like that. I know you didn't do it on purpose but I feel like you ditched me here to pick up all the pieces of life without you in it. I'm pissed, Gary. Really, really pissed." A couple of salty drops slid over the planes of her cheeks and dripped off her chin. One landed on Gary's hand that she still held. Eleanor rubbed her thumb over it. The drop just sort of rolled off his skin, the waxy texture of his

flesh unnerving. Letting go of his hand, she pressed a kiss to her fingertips and then pressed her fingers to his lips. "Even though I'm mad at you I still love you. I loved you when we were ten and I will love you when I am one hundred. Wait for me, baby. I'll get there one day." The tears she'd been holding back spilled over and ran down her cheeks. "I don't know how to do this life without you." Wiping at her eyes with her sleeve, she straightened up and took a deep breath. "Eleanor?" She turned and found Vivian and Antonio standing behind her. Vivian hugged her. Antonio just nodded. He looked like he hadn't slept in weeks. "Father's letting people in now. How are you?" "About how you'd expect." She stepped over to Antonio and grabbed him in a hug. "Thank you, Antonio. I'm so glad he wasn't alone and had someone who cared with him until I could get there." "There's nothing to thank me for," he replied. "I did what anyone would have done." Eleanor shook her head. "No, not just anyone. His best friend." He shrugged. "Whatever." The darkness in his eyes worried her.

She reached up and touched his cheek. "When was the last time you slept?" "Last night." She shook her head. "I mean really slept." He sighed. "The night before the shooting, I guess." "Let it go, Antonio. Please. He wouldn't want you to blame yourself for anything." He closed his eyes and cleared his throat but didn't say anything. "The casket is supposed to be closed," Eleanor said to Vivian. "I got it." Antonio reached up and pulled the lid down. "Thank you." The church was getting pretty full at that point so she motioned to the pews. "Sit with us? Marietta and Ricky too." "I need some air. I'll be right back." Antonio strode off toward the doors. "He's really struggling," Vivian said. "I wasn't even sure I could get him here." "It’s okay. He's carrying some heavy weight right now." Eleanor looked out over the sanctuary of the church. "Look at this, Viv." Nearly every pew in the church was filled already. Hundreds of officers from all the surrounding departments formed a sea of blue that seemed endless. "Wow," Vivian said. "They are still coming in

too. Look. The back of the church is standing room only." "You should see it outside," Marietta said, joining them. "Police cars from as far north as Maine are parked in the lot." "They couldn't all possibly have known Gary." "No," Ricky said. "They didn't know him. They are here to pay their respects on behalf of their agencies." "It's so—overwhelming." Tears overflowed onto her cheeks and ran down to her chin. Marietta wrapped an arm around her. "You and the boys are their family." They walked over to the first pew and Eleanor sat between her boys. They each took one of her hands and held them. Father Thompson stepped on to the altar and the mass began. When it came time for people to speak about Gary, Eleanor rose and walked to the pulpit. On the stand she found a bottle of water and a box of tissues. She would more than likely need one of those things anyway. Taking a deep breath, she looked out over the massive crowd. "Thank you, everyone for coming today. It is a such an honor to know that the man I love will be missed by so many. He was the best husband a woman could ask for and an amazing father. He gave his all to every single thing he did from loving us to doing the job he was born to do. Gary and I

met in grade school. He liked to pull my hair and once he even put a frog in my book bag. It took us many years to become a couple, but I really think I always loved him." She grabbed a tissue and wiped at her eyes, taking a moment to compose herself. Every word brought her closer to breaking down but she was determined to get through this. The world needed to know what kind of man they'd lost. "When we were seniors in high school, Gary and I attended prom together. He wore this Godawful baby blue tuxedo." She paused when a ripple of laughter passed through the crowd. "He was so proud of that tux even though it didn’t come close to matching the emerald green of my gown. He came walking up to my front door all pride and swagger as my mother and I watched from the window. Mom begged me not to laugh before she opened the door. Right, Mom?" She glanced at her mother in the front row and saw her smile as she dabbed her eyes. "I swear I was convinced for a decade that Gary was color blind and just hadn't fessed up to it. Years later, when we showed a picture to our boys, Jackson asked why he'd chosen that particular suit and Gary said, ‘It exactly matches the color of your mother's eyes’." A chorus of aws and sighs filled the room. "I will never find a love like that again. Not if I

lived three more lifetimes." She stopped and looked around the church. The crowd was silent, watching her. Eleanor took a deep breath. "Gary loved being a cop. It was coded into his genes. I can't imagine him doing anything else in his life. He was born to wear the uniform as much as that blue tuxedo and he wore it with pride and dedication every single day on the job. A lot of people over the years have asked me why I married him knowing that police work was his dream. My answer every single time has been because I love him. He couldn't have been anything else. His morals and ethics never wavered. He did the job with grace, always treating people like human beings first." Eleanor paused. The next part would be the hardest to get out. There were many sniffles in the audience. Several people held tissues to their eyes. She had to finish this though. Taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly, she began again. "Gary had a huge heart. He loved us, he loved his friends, and he loved his entire family of blue. Most of you don't know this, but I heard, over the phone, the officer needs assistance call that he responded to that night. His blue brother, his best friend, needed help and he dropped everything to help him. I always knew he'd give his life selflessly to protect another and he did not let me down. He

saved his best friend's life and probably the lives of many innocent people that night. Gary did not die in vain. He went out of this world the same way he lived his life— with passion, dedication and love for his fellow human." The tears had taken over by then and she let them. There wasn't a dry eye looking back at her from the church. She looked over at the box that represented all that was left of her husband. "I love you with all my heart, Gary. I always will. I'm so proud of you. Rest in peace sweetheart, we'll all take it from here." The room filled with clapping and echoes of rest in peace, we got this and we'll take it on from here filled the sanctuary. She stepped down from the pulpit and returned to her seat. Vivian reached over and squeezed her hand. Eleanor noticed Antonio was gone again but Father Thompson moved on to the next part of the mass so she didn't get the chance to ask about him. Thirty minutes later, to the sound of bagpipes playing Amazing Grace, Eleanor, Jackson, and Jameson followed Gary's flag covered casket out of the church. Antonio and Ricky, Connor, and three other guys from his shift carried him to the car waiting to take him back to the funeral home. When they reached the car, the flag was removed, folded, and presented to her by Gary's lieutenant,

Hank Jerry. "On behalf of the governor of Virginia, the chief of police, and the people of a grateful city of Virginia Beach, please accept this flag as a token of our sincere appreciation for the service of Detective Gary Hart." "Th—thank you." She accepted the flag with Jackson and Jameson at her sides. Men and women in blue lined the driveway of the church and police cars lined the road in front of the church as the car carrying Gary slowly drove away. In unison, every officer saluted. When the car passed under the American flag and turned on to the road, police cars from up and down the east coast fell in around it on all sides, like a cocoon of protection, tucking their brother in safely and escorting him to his final destination. Eleanor hugged the flag to her chest, watching the car until it went out of sight. "Good bye, sweetheart. I love you." Ricky pulled his phone out of his pocket and looked at the screen. He said something to Antonio and they both walked over to where Eleanor still stood with Vivian and Marietta. "We've got to go to the station for a bit," Ricky said. "Antonio too?" Vivian asked. "Yes. Lieutenant Jerry just sent us all a text. Something came up with the shooter and he needs

both of us to go with him," Ricky replied, nodding toward the lieutenant. "I'll be okay." Antonio kissed Vivian on the cheek before she could say anything. She nodded. "Will someone tell me what happens please?" Eleanor asked. "Of course." Ricky gave her a hug. "If you need anything, anything at all, you call me, okay?" "Maybe you know an HVAC guy? The heat isn’t working downstairs and I keep forgetting to find someone to fix it." Of all the things for her to think of in that moment. "Geez, I didn't even think of this. Our house is really cold. I hope the guests don't mind." Ricky smiled. "All those bodies will warm it up. Mari's got the name of our guy. She will send you his number." "I'll do it as soon as we get to your house, El." Marietta kissed Ricky. "You two go. Get this guy off the streets." "I think I want to go home now," Eleanor said. "Joseph is waiting over there." Jackson pointed toward the car they'd arrived in. "Go ahead. Viv and I will be right behind you to set all the food out," Marietta said. She nodded and let her sons lead her to the car. She held the flag close to her as they drove to the house, the stars and stripes all she had left of the

man she'd planned to grow old with. Gary was gone for good. He'd never be coming home again.



"Hi, honey. What's up?" Marietta walked in to the powder room and closed the door. So many people were still at Eleanor's house, she could hardly hear anything. "Where are you?" Ricky sounded a little frantic which was odd for her usually stoic husband. "At Eleanor's still." "Are Vivian and Tony still there too?" She leaned against the sink and put the phone on speaker. "Yes. Why?" "Okay. Good. All of you stay there and don't leave. A car is coming by to sit outside. Don't go anywhere until you hear from me." She paced the tiny space. Something was up.

He never acted like this. "Ricky? What's going on? You're scaring me." "Don't say anything to anyone but Vivian, and Eleanor if you think she can handle it. The guy that shot Gary called into 9-1-1 this afternoon during the funeral." "Is he turning himself in?" Ricky exhaled. "Not exactly." "Do you know where he is?" "We know where the call came from. We're headed there in a second." "So, what does that have to do with us?" "When he called, he said—he threatened me and Antonio. Said he was gonna do to us what he did to that other cop." Marietta sat down on the toilet seat cover. "For real?" "Yeah. For real. I don't want to risk him coming after you or Vivian or Eleanor. He knew our names, so he probably figured out where we live." "Oh, Ricky. Please be careful. Maybe you guys should let someone else go after him. Isn't Antonio on leave?" "Chief said he could come back to work until we get this guy. I think he's worried too. Hey, I gotta go." "Okay. I love you. Please, please stay safe." "Always. I love you too." Marietta shut off her phone but she didn't leave

the bathroom just yet. She needed time to process what Ricky had just said. He didn't do their usual thing where he said I know like Han Solo. He actually said I love you back, like he was worried he might not get to say it again. That scared her the most. A knock on the door interrupted her thoughts. "Just a second!" Marietta turned on the water and splashed some of the cool liquid on her face. After drying off with the towel on the counter, she opened the door. "Everything okay?" Vivian leaned against the wall across from the bathroom looking worried. "Come here." Marietta waved her in to the bathroom. "I don't want anyone to overhear." Vivian walked in to the powder room and Marietta closed the door behind them. "Something's wrong, isn't it? I can tell by your expression." When Vivian got upset she spoke very fast, sometimes throwing in some Italian phrases that sounded very much like the Spanish ones Marietta's mother had often used. "Ricky just called. Something's happened." "What? Tell me." "The man who shot Gary made a call into 9-1-1 and threatened to kill Ricky and Antonio as well." "Are you freaking serious?" Vivian shouted. "Shhh! He said not to tell anyone." Vivian clapped a hand to her mouth. "Sorry,"

she whispered. "What else did he say?" "They just want us all to hang out here for a while until he or Antonio calls again. They are sending a car to watch the house while the guys go after him." "Should we tell Eleanor?" Marietta shook her head. "I don't think so. At least not yet. Gary's already gone so the guy has no reason to come here. At least, that's what I hope." "There's a lot of people here still. Eleanor's mother is following her around like a puppy. I think Ellie's about to lose it on her." Marietta shrugged. "I don't know how I'd feel or what I'd want. I'm sure her mama doesn't know any other way to help." "I guess. We should probably get back out there. At least we can run interference if Eleanor does snap." Vivian nodded. "Yeah. And we can keep an eye out for the patrol unit." Marietta opened the door and checked the hall. "We're clear." Vivian laughed. "We aren't robbing a bank." "Spoilsport." Marietta swatted at her lightly. "Last one to the kitchen only gets half a glass of wine." "That's not fair! You had a head start!" "What are you two being so secretive about?" Eleanor asked, stepping in to the small hallway. Her

eyes were red rimmed and puffy and her naturally light skin was pale, like she needed a week of sleep on a tropical island in a hammock. "Uh—" Marietta looked over at Vivian praying she'd just go along. "You know how I hate tags in my clothes? The one in this dress was killing me so Viv tore it out." "Yeah, Mari was climbing the wall trying to get the itch out so I offered to help." Eleanor shook her head. "You two are ridiculous. Can you please get out here and help divert my mother? She's driving me as crazy as that tag." Marietta linked arms with Eleanor and led her back to the kitchen. "Viv and I were just about to find a bottle of wine and rescue it from its contents. Join us?" "Just don't let my mother see. She'll accuse me of drinking my emotions and turning in to an alcoholic like my dad was." "For Heaven's sake, under the circumstances, I'd probably have an intravenous line straight in to my blood stream. It's the only way I'd be able to cope." They reached the kitchen. Vivian went to the cabinet and pulled out three Tervis tumblers and straws. "What are you doing?" Eleanor asked. "Making sure you mama thinks you are drinking

juice. And that your two besties are supporting you with said juice because we are not wine lushes either." Eleanor laughed. "You are the best friends a girl could ever ask for." "Hey, we always got your back, girl." Marietta said, with a wink. Vivian filled the cups with ice and divided a bottle of pink wine between the three of them. Capping each cup, she tucked a straw in the opening and handed one to Eleanor and one to Vivian. "To Gary." Vivian held her cup up and Marietta and Eleanor followed suit. "To Gary," Marietta said. "I miss you, my love." Eleanor took a long sip of wine and then asked, "So, who's going to tell me why the two of you were really in that bathroom?" "What do you mean? I told you?" Marietta replied. "It was a great story, Mari. It worries me how easily you made it up but it was good. Believable too. Except for the fact that you had me cut that tag out last month at church." "Crap." Marietta scowled. "I forgot about that." "So, what's up? Your men took off from the church together and we haven't seen them all day. Now there's a police unit parked out in front of my house and no one told me they were coming. So,

spill, girls. What's going on?" Marietta looked at Vivian who just shrugged. "Yours called you. Mine is still radio silent." "Okay, fine. Ricky called me. Told me they had a solid lead on the guy who killed Gary." Eleanor narrowed her eyes and gave Marietta a hard stare. "That's your big secret? Yeah, I don't think so." Marietta sighed, resigned that she wouldn't be keeping this from her friend. "He called 9-1-1 today and threatened to kill Ricky and Antonio too. That's how they got the lead on his location. Ricky sent a car to watch the house and told us all to stay put. Just as a precaution. He didn't threaten any of us." Eleanor sat down in one of the chairs at the kitchen table. "Well, this just keeps getting better and better." "What does, dear?" Helen, Eleanor's mother, appeared in the doorway of the kitchen. Eleanor shot Marietta the look of death, presumably so she wouldn't say anything. "The food, Mom. All the food people have brought this week. Each dish is better than the last." Motioning to Marietta and Vivian, she said, "You remember my friends?" "Yes, of course I do." Helen extended a hand to both Vivian and Marietta. "It's so nice to see you both again, unfortunate circumstances aside." Marietta nodded and smiled. "Yes, ma'am."

"Please, just call me Helen. We're all friends here." "Could you please go check on the boys for me, Mom?" Eleanor asked. "Let them know I'll be clearing up the food soon if they want to eat again first." "I can't imagine where they put it all." Helen shook her head as she headed from the kitchen. "Helen?" Vivian called after her. "Yes, dear?" "Could you please deliver the same message to my son, Tony? He'll be with the twins." "Of course." Helen disappeared through the doorway. Eleanor let out a long breath. "She has to go home." Vivian laughed. "The day will end eventually." "Oh, didn't you hear? She's staying until Thanksgiving. Doesn't want the boys and I to be alone on such a family centered day. As if I won't already be miserable enough without Gary here." "You won't be alone. You're coming to my house, remember? I already bought a turkey," Marietta said, taking a drink of her wine. "Tell her your brother needs her out in California or something." Eleanor shrugged. "If only it were that easy. I'll give it a try though. And, you really don't have to cook for us."

Marietta shook her head. "It's a done deal already. Bring your mama if you have to but we would love to have you. It would probably be easier on the boys too—they can spend the day playing video games with Ricky. He's actually off that day and would love someone to play against. They can all eat until they explode." "I could never subject you to Helen on a holiday." Marietta raised her cup. "I got a lot of wine and a lot of plastic cups. I'll be fine." "You really should go," Vivian said. "Marietta's a kick ass cook and if I didn't have to feed Antonio's huge family, I'd be there too." Eleanor inhaled deeply then exhaled slowly, looking from Marietta to Vivian and back again. "Okay, fine. As long as you don't mind that my mother will probably be with us." Marietta touched her cup to Eleanor's. "Like I said, I got plenty of mommy juice at my house." "Ha! Mommy juice." Vivian nudged Marietta in the ribs. "Like—anti-Eleanor's mom or survival technique for all mothers in the world?" "Both?" Marietta laughed. "I have no idea how I'd get through any of this without the two of you. Girlfriend hug." Eleanor held out her arms and Marietta and Vivian joined her in a three way embrace they'd nicknamed a girlfriend hug years ago.

"You know we're always here for you," Vivian said. "I do. And there are no words to tell you how much I appreciate it. I just feel so—empty right now." Eleanor wiped at her eyes. The sound of footsteps running down the stairs made them all laugh. "Grammy says there's still food to eat," Jackson said as the three boys ran into the kitchen. "It's in the dining room. Make sure you leave some for the other guests!" "Eleanor!" Helen's voice echoed through the house. "Still in here, Mom!" Helen appeared in the kitchen. "You really should tend to your other guests, don't you think?" "This isn't a party, Mom. I'm the mourning widow. I am not supposed to entertain." "Well, do you have to sit here in the kitchen all afternoon?" Marietta walked to the sink and pretended to wash her hands so Helen wouldn't see her roll her eyes. That woman was ridiculous under the best of circumstances. "Come on, Ellie, I'll go sit with you." Vivian picked up their tumblers and headed toward the living room. "Right behind you!" Marietta replied, expecting Helen to follow but she didn't.

"Marietta, right?" Helen asked when they were alone. "Yes." "I'm worried about Eleanor." The older woman twisted her hands in front of her. "She just lost the love of her life. She's handling it much better than most women would." "It's not what the world sees that concerns me. Eleanor has always been a very private, guarded person. It's when she's finally alone that scares me." "She knows she can call me or Vivian anytime. Either one of us can be here in ten minutes or less." Helen nodded. "You girls are good friends to my daughter. Thank you. I know this has been a hard time for all of you since he died at work." "He was murdered. Hard time barely begins to cover it. My husband rode with him to the hospital. Vivian's husband was there at the shooting. He saw the whole thing. I can't even imagine what that's been like for him." "I was looking for some toilet tissues in Eleanor's bathroom this morning and I found a trash bag of bloody clothes stuffed under the sink." Helen's admission definitely caught her off guard. "Jeans and a sweatshirt?" Helen shrugged. "I'm not sure." "It's probably the clothes she had on at the hospital. What did you do with the bag?" "I left it where it was. I didn't want my daughter

to think I was snooping." Marietta chuckled. "But you were doing exactly that." Helen huffed and put her hands on her hips. "Doesn't everyone keep extra toilet tissue under the sink?" Marietta just smiled. "I suppose. If you'll excuse me? I want to make sure those boys are leaving some of the food for others." She didn't wait for Helen to reply. She walked out of the room, thanking God her own mother was nothing like Eleanor's. In the dining room, the boys sat in a corner together, balancing heaping plates of casseroles and salads on their laps. Through the partially curtained window, she caught sight of a marked police unit parked across the street. Nothing else looked out of the ordinary. Several vehicles were parked in the driveway and along the road on both sides. A small crowd of people gathered off to the side by the pond. Gary loved that pond. He taught both his boys how to fish there. Tony had spent countless hours out there with them, running around and basically just acting like boys. Eleanor sat in an arm chair in the formal living room, Vivian right by her side on a matching chair. An older woman stood by them, patting the back of Eleanor's hand. She leaned in and gave her a quick hug before excusing herself and heading toward the

door. When she got closer, Marietta recognized her as Nina Jerry, the lieutenant's wife. "Hello, Mrs. Jerry," Marietta said as the woman reached for the door knob. "Hello—" "Marietta Vasquez. Ricky Vasquez is my husband." She lifted her hand and pressed long, perfectly manicured fingers to her chest. "Oh, yes, I've met him many times. A very nice man. My husband speaks of him as a good officer." Marietta smiled, politely. "Thank you, ma'am. I appreciate hearing that. I think he's pretty great all around." "It's such a shame what happened to Detective Hart. It is my understanding he was well-liked and respected in the department." "You would be correct." Marietta felt her phone vibrate in her pocket. "Thank you very much for coming today. I know Eleanor appreciates it. Please excuse me." Turning around she headed back toward the powder room. She caught sight of Vivian watching her but didn't stop to explain. Once inside the bathroom, she took her phone from her pocket and called Ricky back. "Hey, baby." He sounded much less stressed than before. "Please tell me you got him?"

"Not yet. But we will. They traced his phone call to a dive motel. He's not registered there but his ol' lady is. We're setting it up right now. Getting warrants and stuff." The clicking of computer keys sounded in the background. "I'm just making a few notes on the report while I wait and checking in with my hot mama." "I look good today too." Ricky let out a low whistle. "That dress sure shows off the girls in all the best ways. I didn't think a quick boob grab was appropriate in church but I was thinking about it the whole time." Marietta laughed, feeling the heat build in her face. "You're ridiculous. You know that, right?" "Maybe. But I'm all yours, baby." "I'm such a lucky girl. I told Eleanor. She knew something was up. The second I hung up my phone she was there, asking." "How is she doing?" "As well as can be expected, I suppose." "Okay, well, I've got to run. I'll call you when I can." "I love you, Ricky." "I know." He ended the call in the familiar way this time, leaving her holding her phone to her chest and whispering a quiet prayer for protection. Two hours later, as she and Vivian helped Eleanor and Helen wrap the rest of the food and clean up the rest of the house, she still hadn't heard

from Ricky again. "I might never eat fried chicken or macaroni and cheese again," Eleanor said as she wrapped up a plate of chicken. "It's the south, we like our comfort foods." Vivian scooped heaps of pulled pork from a foil pan and into a plastic storage container. "I know. And I appreciate every single person who has thought of us." Eleanor dropped down into a chair and rested her head on her arm on the table. "I'm just so tired." "Why don't you go lay down? We can finish here." Vivian picked up a bowl of macaroni salad and handed it to Helen to put away. "Right, ladies?" "Absolutely, darling. You go rest. Your girlfriends and I can handle this." "I think I will. Thanks, girls, Mom. Call me if you need me." By the time they finished packing away all of the food, Ricky hadn't called with an update so Marietta went in to the living room where she slipped off her shoes, sat on the sofa, and tucked her feet up under her. A headache had been fighting to make an appearance for a while. Leaning against the arm rest, she allowed her eyes to close as she massaged her temples. "You and Vivian can head home if you'd like. I'll be here. Eleanor won't be alone." Helen sat on the love seat across from Marietta.

"That's okay. I don't mind staying a little longer. Just in case other guests stop by." "Girl, am I beat," Vivian announced as she plopped into an arm chair. Helen turned to Vivian. "I was just telling Marietta that you ladies could head home if you'd like." "I'm too tired to drive at the moment. Too much juice in my sippy cup. I'm going to crash here for a little bit." She grabbed at an afghan on the back of the chair and pulled it up over herself. "Ah, this is nice." "Is there something going on that I don't know about?" Helen stood up in the center of the room looking back and forth between them. "What do you mean?" Marietta asked, using her sweetest voice. "Well, the two of you refuse to go home and there's been a police car parked out front for the last four hours at least. I know y'all think I'm oblivious but I've been around the neighborhood a time or two." "Crap." Vivian nodded to Marietta. "You might as well tell her or she'll be shooing us out the door with the broom." Marietta sat up straight on the couch, pulled back the curtains and waved to the officer outside. "Okay, fine. Ricky and Antonio and some of the other guys are following a lead on the shooter. A

lead they got because he called 9-1-1 and made a threat against our husbands. We are under strict instructions not to go home until we hear from them." "Bless your hearts, girls. You've been carrying that around all afternoon?" They both shrugged. "It's not that big a deal," Vivian said. "Well, of course it is! This man is scary. I'd be worried sick if it were me." "Years of being married to a cop has made me used to it, I guess. I trust his training and his fellow officers to do the best they can to keep each other safe." Helen sat down in a chair. She picked up a throw pillow and fussed with it, not making eye contact with either Marietta or Vivian. "Gary trusted them too. That didn't turn out so well." Rage coursed through Marietta but she kept it under control. Helen didn't know all of the details. Like the fact that Antonio was there and couldn't do anything to stop it. Eleanor was her daughter, and she'd known Gary all his life. It was a lot to deal with and accept. "Gary was ambushed. There was nothing anyone could do to stop that. This time, our guys have the advantage." "I sincerely hope that you are correct." Vivian yawned. "In the meantime, I'm gonna lay

right here and take a nap. I'm beat." "How about the boys?" Helen asked. Vivian gave a little wave as her eyes closed. "We won't see them for hours. Not until they get hungry again. Tony brought over the newest racing video game." "Is it healthy for them to spend so much time on games?" Helen actually looked genuinely concerned. Marietta shrugged. "The twins are adults and Tony is a senior in high school. Under the circumstances, I don't see an issue." She faked a yawn. "I'm going to take a little nap too, if you don't mind." "I suppose it would do me good to lay down a bit as well." Helen rose and headed toward the guest room at the back of the house. When she was gone, Vivian opened her eyes. "I thought she'd never leave." "I know." Marietta looked at her cell phone. "Just like Ricky is never going to call." As if on cue, her cell phone rang. "Is it him?" Vivian asked. Marietta nodded. "Hi, honey. Everything okay?" Ricky chuckled. "We got him, if that's what you mean." "Oh, gracias Dios." This time Ricky full on laughed. "I thought you

only kicked on the Spanglish when you are pissed at me?" "Did they get him?" Vivian asked from her spot under the blanket. "Yes," Marietta replied. To Ricky she said, "What now?" "He'll be processed and sent to jail until he can be arraigned. We've got one hell of a report to write tonight too. Sarge is already breathing down our necks to make sure every t is crossed and every i is dotted." "So, we can go home?" "Yeah. Tell Vivian Antonio will call her in a bit. He's at the magistrate’s office with—the suspect." She knew by the pause he wanted to say something else. "Okay. See you soon?" "It could be a while, babe. They aren't gonna let us leave until this is all wrapped up." "Just get home as soon as you can then. Love you." "Love you too. Text me when you go to bed and I'll try and call to say goodnight." He disconnected the call. Marietta set her phone down and leaned back against the sofa. "It's over." Vivian frowned. "Or just beginning. Depends on how you look at it." Marietta looked out the window. "The patrol

unit is gone." "Should we wait for Eleanor to wake up?" Vivian asked. "Probably. Or we could just let Helen know we are leaving." "No need. I'm up." They both looked toward the doorway to see Eleanor standing there. "You both go on home. It's been such a long day and you have already done so much for us. Mom is here if I need anything." Marietta stood up and slipped her shoes back on. Vivian did the same. "Are you sure?" Marietta hugged her friend. Eleanor smiled. "Go. Take off your pantyhose and relax." "Tony!" Vivian called up the steps. "Come on, boy! We're going home!" "Be right there! Just gotta finish this race." Tony yelled back. "That boy and his games." Vivian shook her head as she grabbed her coat from the hall closet and slipped it on. "I think you mean those boys," Eleanor said. "My two are just as involved." Tony came bounding down the steps. "Okay, I'm ready." "How nice of you," Vivian said. "Get your jacket. You're driving. I'm tired. You should be an expert behind the wheel after all the hours you've

spent on that game today." "Mom!" "Yeah, yeah. I know. Everybody's doing it. Blah, blah, blah." "Bye, Ellie. Bye, Mari." Vivian hugged her and left with Tony. "You sure you don't need me to stay?" Marietta asked as she put on her jacket. "I'm good. I think I'll take a shower and maybe read for a bit. I think I'm actually tired enough to sleep some tonight too." "Okay. Call me if you need me." Marietta gave Eleanor one last hug then left. The drive home was quiet and cold. The house felt the same when she walked in. Locking the front door behind her, she went straight to her bedroom, undressed, and went to bed. The longest day ever had finally ended.



"This was a pretty intense day," Tony commented as Vivian unlocked the front door. "I wasn't sure what to say to Ms. Ellie at first but the twins were the same as always so that was okay at least." She pushed open the door and they walked inside. Vivian flipped a switch, flooding the foyer with light. Taking off her coat, she hung it up and dropped her purse on the table in the hall. Tony followed her to the kitchen. "Ms. Eleanor is going to be pretty sad for a while. Jackson and Jameson may seem like they are fine now but they just lost their father and it will hit them eventually. When that time comes, just be a good friend to them, okay?"

Tony opened the refrigerator, pulled out an apple and took a bite. "Okay, Mom." He headed toward the hallway and stopped, turning back to look at her. "How do I feel sad for them yet happy for us that it wasn't Dad?" "Oh, Tony." She walked over and wrapped him up in a hug. "I have the same issue. I'm brokenhearted for Ms. Eleanor but beyond grateful that your father didn't die. All we can do is just be there for them." "At the funeral, I couldn't look at the casket. I just kept thinking, it could have been Dad in there instead." "It's okay to feel that way, baby. I kept looking at Ms. Eleanor thanking God that it wasn't me standing up there talking about my dead husband." "Dad's been a cop my whole life. I never even thought he could get hurt or die. Then Mr. Gary died and—" He stopped talking, turning away and wiping at his eyes. Vivian pulled him in for another hug. "I know, baby. I know." "When are they gonna get the guy, Mom?" She reached up and pushed a piece of hair out of his eyes. "They already did. This evening. That's why Dad's been gone so long. They had a lead and the chief let him be there for it." Tony tipped his head back and let out a long breath of air. "So, it's over."

"It's mostly over, yes." "So, maybe Dad will get back to normal then." Vivian nodded. "I really hope so." "I've got a math test tomorrow I better go study for." He kissed her on the cheek. "I love you, Mom." "I love you too!" she called after him as he bounded up the steps. Vivian pulled a bottle of wine and a brick of white cheddar cheese from the refrigerator. She filled her favorite wine glass to the brim and sliced several pieces of cheese that she lay on some crackers she took from the pantry. Tony had been right on, this had been one long day. She took a drink and ate a cracker and cheese. The silence in the house hit a stark contrast to the activity of the day. Leaning back in her chair, she took another long sip of her drink. On the refrigerator across the room hung a picture of her and Antonio. He had his arm around her, kissing her cheek. Gary had taken that picture a couple of summers ago at a barbeque at the Hart house. They'd had such a good day. It was the day they all met Marietta, right after Ricky joined their precinct. Nothing would ever be the same again. None of them would ever be the same. Gary's death truly had irrevocably changed all of their lives. Her conversation with Tony proved that.

Vivian sat in the family room watching the eleven o'clock news when she heard a car door slam outside. A few seconds later, the front door opened and Antonio appeared in the doorway of the family room. His grey button-down shirt hung loose and untucked. The tie he'd worn to the funeral hung out of his shirt pocket. There was a smear of dirt on his cheek and his normally perfectly styled thick brown hair stood on end like he'd run his fingers through it a hundred times. Vivian muted the television. "You look like hell." Antonio shrugged and tossed his jacket on a chair. "We got him." "I know." She got up and went to him, wrapping her arms around his waist and resting her head on his chest. "I won't lie. I was a little bit scared." Antonio wrapped his arms around her and kissed the top of her head. "I'm sorry to put you through that. We didn't think he'd go after you or Marietta but no one knew for sure. When we caught up with him he was high as a kite on spice. Pretty sure he has been since that night." "So, what now?" "I'm back on administrative leave indefinitely. Oh, and I have to go back to IA. They have more questions." Vivian stepped back and looked at him. "Everything is on video, right? Can't they just look

at that?" "I'm sure they have. Many times." Antonio dropped into his favorite chair, kicking his feet out in a wide v. "Can you get me a beer, babe?" She stepped in between his legs. "How about we just go to bed instead?" He picked up the remote and reached around her to turn on the television. "You go ahead. I'll be up later." Vivian sighed. "Fine. What time do you have to go in tomorrow?" "What?" Antonio asked. "I said, what time is your appointment with internal affairs?" "Nine," he replied without looking at her. "Get me that beer before you go upstairs?" Without answering, she grabbed a bottle from the fridge and put it on the side table, a little more forcefully than necessary then walked away. The sounds of some sporting event sounded from the television as she headed to her bedroom, knowing full well Antonio would crash right where he was for the night and she'd sleep alone again. She lay in bed for a long time listening to the sound of the television downstairs. It worried her that IA wouldn't let things drop and she knew it worried Antonio too. She wouldn't get her husband back until it was over. That was a definite given. As expected, when Vivian woke the next

morning, Antonio's side of the bed was untouched. The clock read seven twelve. She got up and hopped in the shower. The hot water felt good on her aching body. The stress of the last week had begun to take its toll and now with Antonio's second visit to internal affairs, the tension headache had begun to set in. As she rinsed the conditioner from her hair, the door to the bathroom slammed open, a panicked Antonio entering the steamy room. "You didn't wake me up!" "Dude, I just got up myself. You've got plenty of time." "You know I have that meeting!" She heard the toilet flush, like she wasn't even in the bathroom. His attitude pissed her off. "Then you should have slept in our bed and I would have known you hadn't already left." "Move over, I'm coming in." Antonio pushed the curtain aside and stepped into the tub. "Um, hello? I'm in here. No one invited you." "I'm sorry. I just freaked out when I saw how late it is." "Doesn't mean you have to snap at me." She finished rinsing the conditioner from her hair. Vivian stepped out from under the spray, offering the warm water to her husband. "When did you get naked?" "Sometime last night, I guess. I woke up in my

jockey shorts." Antonio picked up the bar of soap and worked up a lather on a wash cloth. "I missed you. The bed was empty without you." He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. "Sorry. Passed out. Long day. I really didn't mean to be an ass a minute ago." His attitude and his nakedness meant he'd had more than the one beer. Several more. "Do you want breakfast before you go? Maybe some coffee?" It wouldn't do him any good to show up hung over and nasty to the meeting with Internal Affairs. "No time." He scrubbed the cloth over his body, spraying soap all over her. "Gee, thanks." "I told you I'm in a hurry." "I know, because it's not like we don't have another bathroom. You just had to take over my shower." "Not now, Viv. I said I was sorry." Vivian stepped out of the shower, grabbing a towel to wrap around her body. She used a second one to contain her wet, wild hair. "The meeting isn't until nine." "I need to go over a few things before I go in. As soon as I finish here, I'm gonna get dressed and head to the station." "How about I get a pot of coffee while you

dress and put some in travel cup?" "Whatever. Thanks. Just be quick. I'll be done here in a sec." "Yes, sir," she mumbled, giving him the middle finger. Even though he couldn't actually see it, the action made her feel better. "You say something?" Antonio called from in the shower. "Nope." Not anything she planned to repeat anyway. Vivian went in search of some clothes. Pulling a pair of leggings and a long-sleeved shirt from a drawer, she dressed quickly and headed to the kitchen. The last thing Antonio needed was any residual hangover symptoms at an IA question session. She'd just snapped the lid on the travel cup when the fragrance of Antonio's cologne wafted into the kitchen. The hall closet door opened and then closed. A few seconds later, her husband appeared in the kitchen. "I'm out of here, babe." "I made you that coffee." Vivian handed him the cup and kissed him. "Good luck. Just keep your cool and you'll be fine." "Are you implying I'm not a cool guy?" Antonio tried to joke but it fell flat. "I'd never suggest any such thing." She followed him to the door.

"Gotta run." Antonio left the house without kissing her goodbye. "Love you, Viv. Love you too, Antonio. Oh, and you're welcome for the coffee. Hope you spill it all over yourself," she said to the closed door. Jack off couldn't even say good bye? Vivian tried to pretend none of it mattered, knowing how stressed he was. She stood in the window and watched him drive away until the car disappeared from view, sadness weaving its way around her heart. She missed her husband. "Hey, mom, can you drive me to school today? I've got my gear bag and I'm just not in the mood to lug it onto the bus." "Maybe you ought to think about getting your license sometime soon?" Tony'd been dragging his feet on that one for much too long. Most of his senior class could drive and he'd had no interest in learning. "Yeah, I know. But not today. Can you drive me?" "Okay, fine. But we will continue this conversation tonight. It's time you learned to drive." He scowled. "Fine. But I don't understand why you are in such a rush to get a new car." "What?" Vivian asked, confused. "Statistics prove that I'm going to be in a car wreck within a year of getting my license."

Vivian shook her head. "Stop with the ridiculousness. You need to learn how to drive." "I don't understand why. With public transportation—" Vivian put a finger to his mouth. "Hush, child. You're learning to drive, now go on and get ready. Leave in ten minutes?" "Fine. If you insist," Tony called as he ran up the steps. Vivian tossed a load of laundry in to the washer and cleaned up the coffee pot. By the time she'd finished, Tony was ready to go. "Here." She tossed him the keys. "Go warm up the car. I'll be out in a minute." Once she had her coat on, Vivian grabbed her purse and joined Tony in the car. "Practice or game tonight?" "Game. Away though. You and Dad don't have to come." "You don't want us to?" Tony turned to look out the window. "You can come." "But not Dad?" Tony didn't reply. "Tony." "You were there last time. The kids have been talking about him and how he started a fight." "You do know your father didn't start that, right?"

Tony shrugged. "It doesn't matter. Everyone's been talking since the shooting. They think—forget it." He crossed his arms over his chest. "No. I'm not going to forget it. What are they thinking?" "Nothing." They pulled up in front of the school. She stopped the car and turned to look at her son. "What's going on, kid?" "There's a lot people talking crap about Dad. Stuff about Mr. Gary too." "What kind of stuff?" "About the whole shooting and everything." "Honey, people like to talk about things they don't understand. I'd hoped you wouldn't be affected by it and I am sorry you are having to deal with it. Just remember, it's easy to say what should've been done in hindsight, a whole lot harder to make a split second, life dependent decision." "I know, Mom. I just want to stay focused tonight. Scouts and all. I gotta go. Thanks for the ride." He reached for the door handle and pushed the door open. "We can talk more later if you want." Tony nodded as he stepped out of the car. "Sure, Mom. Bye." "Love you!" she called after him but the door slammed shut too loudly for him to hear. What was with all the men in her life and slamming doors?

After a couple of quick errands, Vivian headed home. Antonio should be there soon and she really wanted to know what happened at the interview with Internal Affairs. She'd just finished folding a third load of laundry when the front door slammed. "Antonio? That you?" "You expected someone else?" His tone was way too serious. Vivian met him in the hallway. "No one else I'd rather see. Let me hang your coat up for you while you go change." Antonio stomped up the stairs without replying. "I guess the meeting went well." Vivian hung up the coat. "Thanks honey for hanging my coat," she muttered then went to the kitchen to warm up some left overs for lunch. Just as she pulled the dish from the microwave, Antonio stomped his way into the kitchen, growling. "You want to talk about it?" "Not really." He pulled open the fridge and took out two bottles of beer. Vivian set the dish on the table. "Here, why don't you eat something first." "I'm a grown ass man. Don't tell me what to do." She took a deep breath, searching for a way to diffuse the situation before she lost her temper. "I'm sorry, were you actually talking to me? The woman

who bore your child and serves you all your favorite meals?" "I'm not in the mood, Viv." She leaned back against the counter and crossed her arms over her chest. "Obviously. You gonna tell me why?" He popped the top off the first bottle and downed the entire contents in one swallow. "Nope." Antonio slammed the bottle down on the table and popped the top of the second one. He finished that in two gulps. "Can you pick up some more of this when you go out?" "You've been hitting the bottle pretty hard lately, baby. Maybe you oughta take a break?" "My best friend just died. I don't think a few beers under the circumstances is a terrible thing. It's not like Internal Affairs is investigating me or anything." He slammed the second empty bottle at the trash can, but missed. The amber glass shattered against the tiles, sending hundreds of shards of glass scattering across the floor. "Fuck!" He turned and punched the door to the pantry, shoving his fist halfway through the wood. Vivian crossed the room, thankful she still wore her shoes and wrapped her arms around her husband. He leaned down and buried his face in her hair. They stayed that way for a long time, and when Antonio finally stepped away, she felt the

moisture of tears against her scalp. He walked over and sat down, resting his head on his arms folded on the table, careful to avoid the knuckles he'd probably just bruised. Vivian grabbed the broom from the utility closet and slowly began to sweep the floor. "You want to talk about it now?" "I'm sorry about the glass." He motioned to the small pile she'd begun to gather. "Don't worry about it. Accidents happen." She knew it wasn't an accident. So did he, but she'd pick that battle another time. "Apparently the various body cam videos have convinced the powers that be that I could have done more to prevent the shooting. They want to know why I didn't try to intervene." "You didn't have an opportunity." She stopped sweeping to look at her husband. "Did you?" "No. I don't think so. Maybe. I told you I thought I fucked up." He laid his head back on his arms and shook it slowly. "It's my fault Gary's dead. That's what everyone thinks." "The man was high and crazy and shooting like a mad man. What do they think you should have done?" "Shoot him, I guess." "If you had tried, would you be here right now having this conversation?" She bent over and swept the pile of glass in to the dustpan. "I honestly can't answer that, Viv. Everything

happened so fast." "Well, there's nothing you can do about it now. You told them everything you remember, right?" "Yeah." "So, all you can do is wait." He nodded slowly. "Yeah." "Why don't you eat something then. Nana always said that good food is the best remedy for everything." "Your Nana weighed three hundred pounds and was as wide as she was tall." Antonio pulled the plate of chicken and broccoli casserole toward him. "This looks pretty good." "I brought it home from Eleanor's last night. Mrs. Beacon made it." "I bet she's got enough food there to eat for a year." He scooped a forkful into his mouth. "Mmm. This tastes even better than it looks." "So, how long will the investigation take?" Vivian put the broom back in the closet and pulled out the mop. Antonio shrugged. "You know, the standard four to six weeks." "Meaning, two to three months." She turned on the water to fill the mop bucket. "I sure as hell hope not. But, yeah." Running the mop across the tiles, she said, "You know you didn't do anything wrong and they will know it too sooner rather than later. In the

meantime, you can get some rest. Maybe finish a few projects around here—" His fork clattered against the now empty plate. "Pretty sure I'm not in the mood to paint the garage or install a new toilet right now." "I didn't mean today, Antonio." "I'm not on fucking vacation, here. You realize that, right?" "Of course, I do. I just thought if you kept busy it would help." He pushed his chair back from the table. "So, you got a list of chores just ready to go." "Do you plan to sit on your ass and drink beer and watch television the whole time instead?" "What I should be doing is getting back to work. I can't believe they are making me stay out at home rather than do light duty or something." "This is a high profile case." She rinsed the mop and then dipped it back into the soapy water. "A lot of emotions involved." "But a cop died. Not a civilian. I didn't think anyone would care that much." Vivian stopped mopping and moved over to stand between Antonio and the table. She picked up his hand and brought it to her lips, pressing a kiss to the knuckles. "Have you maybe thought about talking to someone about the shooting?" He pulled his hand away and folded his arms over his chest, eyeing her suspiciously. "I am. I'm

talking to you right now." "I think you know that's not what I mean." "I'm not crazy, Viv. I don't need no damn shrink." "No one thinks you're crazy. But you went through something that's gonna affect you for the rest of your life. I just thought maybe you ought to try and get out in front of it." "Gary's dead. A junkie shot him. I'm being investigated and I have no fucking idea why when Gary isn't a civilian. There. I've talked. Can I go watch TV now?" "It's like talking to a damned brick wall." She picked up the mop and went back to cleaning the floor. "No, wait. The brick wall actually listens better. It might even say thank you occasionally." Antonio stood up and grabbed his empty plate off the table. "I don't need this crap right now. You're supposed to be on my side. That's what wives do. Back their men." "First of all, I always have your back. You know that. Second, this is me supporting you. I think you need to talk to someone. Someone who understands what you are going through. I've never watched my best friend get gunned down in front of me. I don't know what that feels like for you." "It feels like shit!" Antonio dropped his plate in the sink and stormed from the room. A moment later she heard television sounds blasting from the

family room. She was stowing the mop supplies in the utility closet when her phone rang. "Hi, Vivian," the caller said. "Hey, Ellie. How are you today?" "I don't actually know how to answer that. I don't feel much of anything these days." Vivian sat down in the chair Antonio had left in the center of the kitchen. "I think that's a normal part of the grieving process." "This process—how long does it take?" Vivian sighed. "I wish I knew, sweetie. Everyone is different. I can't even begin to imagine how you are feeling. Even with Antonio in full ass hat mode these days, I'd be totally lost without him." Ellie sniffed. "He must really be struggling." "More than he will admit. We just had an argument because I suggested he see a counselor and he interpreted that as my thinking he's crazy. I just don't know how to help him. I don't know how to help you. I suck as a friend and a wife." Ellie made a sound that almost sounded like a laugh. "Stop that. You are the best friend a woman could ever have and you gotta be a champ to be married to that man of yours for as long as you have." "I think he's drinking too much, El. Heck, I know he is. Every time I bring it up though, he just

drinks more. And now with this whole IA thing—" "What's happening with Internal Affairs?" Eleanor asked. "They've opened an investigation into the events of that night. Particularly, Antonio's actions." "Why? Did he do something?" "As far as I can tell, no. I guess that's their issue. They want to know why he didn't shoot the guy before Gary got there." "I suppose he had his reasons. He did call for assistance." "Yeah, he's pretty upset about it. He already blames himself for Gary's death. This investigation is probably just turning the knife in his heart even harder." Vivian grabbed a napkin off the table and dabbed her eyes. Eleanor didn't need to hear her crying right now. "I'm so sorry, Vivian. I don't want both of our families torn apart by this." She got up and tossed the tissue in the trash can. Opening the refrigerator, she grabbed a brick of cheese and some pepperoni. Her mother would call it eating her emotions but, whatever. "Don't you worry about it. Antonio is tough. He'll bounce back just fine. Once they let him back to work, things will settle back in around here. Now, how about you? What can I do to help you?" Her friend laughed. "Let my mother come and

stay at your house?" Vivian laughed. "That bad, huh?" Eleanor sighed. "Worse. You know what I caught her doing this morning?" "What?" Vivian cut a big chunk of cheese and shoved the whole thing in her mouth at once. "Emptying Gary's dresser drawers into trash bags for donation. Can you believe that? He's barely gone and she just wants to erase him from my life." Vivian heard a little hint of emotion in her friend's voice. "Maybe she thought she was helping?" "She had no right." Now she could hear Eleanor definitely crying through the phone. "He's my husband. It's my job to go through his things when I'm ready to do it. I made her put it all back." "You're absolutely right. It should be yours to do. I'm sorry that your mother crossed that line. Maybe you should ask her to go home?" Eleanor sniffed. "One minute I am thankful for the company—the house feels so large and empty now. The next I can't stand to have her breathing the same air as me. I feel smothered and anxious with her around but I am afraid to have her leave. When the boys go back to school at the end of the week, it's just going to be me in this big house and I'm not sure how to handle that. If I can handle it." "Oh, Ellie." Vivian breathed out. "I wish I could take your pain away."

"I don't think anyone can." Eleanor sighed. "Let's change the subject. I heard Tony's being scouted." "If his ass hat father didn't ruin it for him, then yes, he is. Some good schools too." "Oh no! What happened?" "You know my husband and his hot temper. He had some words with another parent and got tossed out." "Oh, Viv." "Yeah. The on duty officer let us back in after Antonio cooled his jets but Tony is upset with him now. Doesn't want him at any more of his games." "The world is screwed up, isn't it?" Eleanor asked. Vivian laughed. "I'd like to think there's enough good in this world to balance out the current levels of idiocy. They weren't really doing anything wrong anyway, just talking about what happened and how it had to be affecting Tony but you know my husband." "Antonio has a lot on his mind." Vivian laughed. "Antonio is a hot head. Are you still going to Mari's for Thanksgiving dinner?" Eleanor let out a long sigh. "If I don't, my mother will insist on cooking and I'm better off ordering Chinese take-out than letting that happen." "Go to Mari's then. She's an amazing cook and can handle your mother like a pro."

"She just pulls out her inner city-girl attitude. Mama is no match for that." Vivian laughed. "I kind of wish I was going to be there. New York City Yankee versus the Southern Bell Debutante." "You are too much, Viv. I guess I should go do something now. Fold laundry, wash dishes, pack my mother's suitcase and call an Uber." "Oh! Now that's what I like to hear. My girl's getting some of her sass back!" "I'm trying to be me. I just can't seem to make it happen so much yet." "You'll get there, El. I know you will." "Thanks for chatting with me. I know you have a ton of things to do. I just wanted to feel normal for few minutes." "Anytime. You know that. Call me day or night." "I'll talk to you soon. Thanks again for everything. You're a good friend, Vivian. No matter what you might think." Eleanor disconnected the call before she could say anything else. Vivian spent the rest of the day doing laundry and catching up on some work things. By the time Tony strolled in after his game, Antonio was snoring in his chair and she was yawning in her office. "How'd it go, baby?" Vivian called as Tony came in through the garage door.

"I scored twenty-eight points." He walked into the office and leaned against the door frame looking every bit like his father did at that same age. "Oooh! You were on fire!" "Coach said he spotted three scouts. I hope they liked what they saw." "I'm sure they'll be fighting over who gets you to sign with them any day now. Especially if you keep burning up the courts the way you have been." "Mom!" Tony waved away her compliment. "I'm beat. I'm gonna get a shower and call it a night. We stopped to eat on the way home." "All right. Sleep well, my boy." Tony disappeared from the doorway and she heard footsteps on the stairs as she saved the file she was working on and shut down her computer. On her way to bed, she stopped by the family room and nudged her husband. "Antonio. Antonio, wake up. I'm heading to bed. Come with me. You don’t need another night in this chair." "Hmmm, okay. I'll be up in a minute." He swiped at the string of saliva that had trailed down his chin. "Okay." She was already in bed and falling asleep when Antonio stumbled in to the room and climbed in under the covers. Flopping a heavy arm over her

waist, he mumbled good night and started snoring almost instantly. The weight of his limb compressed her diaphragm, making her feel suffocated. Vivian gently lifted Antonio's arm off of her ribcage so she could breathe. She then closed her own eyes and waited for sleep to move in. Sometime later, Vivian stirred. Her chest felt heavy, like an elephant sat on top of it and she couldn't take a full breath of air. Forcing her eyes to open, the room felt like it was on wheels spinning to the left and tilting to the right. Even in the darkness, she could see the walls begin to swim. Using every last bit of energy she had, she turned her head to look straight in the wild, unfocused eyes of her husband kneeling on top of her chest. "Antonio!" She gasped for air. "Get off me!" She tried to lift her arms to shove at him but they were anchored to the bed by his hands. "Hold still, you son of a bitch!" His expression was wild, his breaths coming in hot puffs. "Antonio! Please! Your hurting me!" "I got you now, mother fucker!" He lifted one hand, balled into a fist and ready to strike. Summoning all her energy, she lifted her legs up off the bed and threw her body to the side. Antonio lost his balance, tumbling off of her and on to the floor with a loud bang.

"Mom! Dad! You guys all right?" Footsteps pounded down the hallway then Tony called through the closed bedroom door. "What happened?" Antonio asked, sitting up and looking around. "We're fine, Tony! Dad just tripped going to the bathroom. Go back to bed, honey," Vivian called back to their son. She heard Tony walk away down the hallway over the sound of her pounding heart and gasps for air. Tears poured down her face as the adrenaline began to crash her system. "I was going to the bathroom?" Antonio asked. Vivian took a couple of deep, steadying breaths then climbed out of bed and sat down on the floor across from Antonio. "You were not going to the bathroom." He looked really confused. "Then how did I end up down here?" She looked at him, studying his face. "You don't remember?" "No. Tell me. What happened? Why are you crying?" "I'm fine." Vivian wiped at her eyes with the hem of the t-shirt she wore. Overcome with the urge to either punch him or hug him, she decided that neither might not be the best idea at the moment for either of them. "I think maybe you were having a nightmare. Do you remember anything about that?"

He shook his head, slowly, like he wanted to pull the memories back. "The shooting. Gary had just arrived on scene. I tackled the guy with the gun. I was kneeling on his chest and pinning his arms down until Connor could get him cuffed." "Well, part of it was real anyway." She held up her arms and showed him the red marks that had begun to form on her wrists. Antonio's eyes widened as he looked at her wrists. "I did that?" He reached for her but she scrambled backwards, out of his reach. Vivian nodded, crossing her arms over her abdomen. "I rolled you off of my chest because I couldn't breathe." He let his head fall back against the side of the bed. Tears ran down his face and streamed off his chin. "Oh God, Viv, I am so sorry. I thought—" "I really think you need to see about talking to someone." "I could have really hurt you." Emotion cracked his voice. "But you didn't." This time. She kept that thought to herself. Antonio slammed his fist against the floor. "Everything is such a mess." Stamping down her fear and emotions over what had just happened, Vivian slid over next to Antonio and sat so that their shoulders touched. "We're going to get through this. Together. I

promise." He wrapped an arm around her shoulder and pulled her in close. She tried to hide her flinch. "I'm so sorry, Viv. I promise I won't hurt you like that again." She rested her head on his shoulder and they sat there like that for a very long time. He meant what he said in that moment but there was no way he could make a promise like that. Not the way things have been going. It wasn't until the first hint of sunrise did they finally get back in to bed. Antonio fell asleep almost instantly but Vivian lay there awake with no idea what she could do to help her husband when he kept refusing to help himself.



"I don't know why you didn't just let me cook a turkey," her mother said as she put on her coat. "I told you, Mom, Marietta invited us before you decided to stay this week. She'd already bought everything. I couldn't cancel at the last minute. That would be wrong." Eleanor buttoned up her own coat then handed the keys to Jackson. "Here, you drive. I'll sit in the back with Jameson." "I'll go warm the car up for Grammy." Jackson left the house on a gust of cold air. Helen shivered. "I swear this is the coldest winter you've ever had." "Thank goodness that guy was able to fix the heater so quickly. The news says this weekend is

going to be even colder." It had actually taken her several days to even remember to call the repairman so she was beyond grateful he'd been available the day before Thanksgiving and had what he needed to get the system up and running again. He'd given her a huge discount, only charging for the part, when he found out who she was. So sorry about your husband, he'd said. I couldn't believe it when I saw the news. He was a great guy. Someone else that had known Gary. She'd begun to believe the entire city of Virginia Beach had met him at one time or another. "I'll meet you outside, Ellie. Where's that other boy of yours?" "I'll get him. Be careful walking down the steps, Mom. They might be slippery." "I'm not old and frail, Eleanor." Her mother left the house with a huff. Eleanor took a deep breath. This was going to be one heck of a day. She could feel it. Jameson ran down the steps. "Sorry. I was trying to find a game I wanted to show Mr. Ricky." Eleanor nodded. "Head on outside. Jackson's warming up the car. Grammy sits up front. You get me." He nodded and headed to the door but stopped with his hand on the knob. "Hey, Mom? Maybe Jack and I can stop by the station this evening and

pick up Dad's truck?" She'd been avoiding that task. Somehow, the thought of seeing his truck parked in the driveway knowing he'd never drive it again, made her want to forget it had even existed. "I'll drop the two of you off on the way home from dinner. Grab the keys from the drawer." They kept a small table in the foyer for keys and Eleanor's purse, a few random pieces of mail, and basically anything else that got dumped there. The department had sent back Gary's keys a week or so ago, not realizing the truck was still parked in the back lot. She figured it was safe there and had put it out of her mind as best as she could. Jameson grabbed the keys and headed outside. Eleanor picked up her purse and followed him. Spending the day with her friends worried her. Her mom had woken up in quite the mood, upset that Eleanor hadn't let her prepare dinner. This whole day would be a huge mistake, of epic proportions, unless her mom switched gears—and quickly. The drive to Marietta and Ricky's house went smoothly. Her mom seemed content to look out the window and make the occasional comment on Christmas decorations. Jackson and Jameson bantered like they always did and she just listened to it all, feeling the absence of Gary on this day of thanks intensely. She didn't feel the least bit thankful, although she knew she should. She had

her boys, and Gary's insurance and department benefits would take care of them for a long time. No amount of money replaced his presence in their lives though. Jackson parked the car on the road in front of the Vasquez house and they all got out. "Let me walk with you Gammy?" Jameson asked, taking her arm and escorting her up the steep driveway. Funny how her mother didn't yell at him when he suggested helping her up the drive. "Hello!" Marietta stood in the doorway, a huge smile on her face. "Happy Thanksgiving!" "Hi, Ms. Mari," Jameson said as he helped his grandmother off with her coat. "Happy Thanksgiving," Jackson said. Marietta grabbed Eleanor up in a tight hug. "Hi, sweetie. How are you doing?" she whispered in Eleanor's ear. Eleanor shrugged, afraid to try and make words with another round of tears on standby. "Come on in!" Marietta took her by the hand, leading the way. "I put out some snacks in the living room for everyone while I finish up dinner." "Can I help you in the kitchen?" Marietta waved a hand in the air, dismissing the offer. "I think I have everything under control, Helen. Thank you though." Eleanor’s mother scowled but held her tongue and went to the couch to sit down and Eleanor sent

up a silent prayer of thanks. Her mother rarely kept her thoughts to herself. Maybe they'd get through this day with minimum drama after all. "Hey, boys," Ricky entered the room. "Anyone up for some football?" "Duh!" Jameson answered. "It's Thanksgiving." The boys attacked the cheese and crackers and other snacks while Ricky pulled up the football game. Eleanor sat in a chair by a window, watching her sons eat and yell at the television with Ricky. It should have been Gary they spent this time with. Getting up from the couch, her mother wandered around, picking up little knickknacks, looking at photos and talking to herself. After a few minutes she disappeared down the hallway that led to the kitchen. Eleanor got up and headed after her. Marietta didn't need to deal with her mother. When she made it to the kitchen, her mom was standing at the stove lifting various pot lids and stirring things. Marietta was at the counter by the refrigerator, pouring two large glasses of wine. "Ah, Eleanor, I was about to bring this to you." Marietta handed her one of the glasses, glancing toward Helen and rolling her eyes. "Thanks." She accepted the glass and took a long sip. "Mom? What are you doing? I told you Mari had it all under control. She doesn't need your

help." "Can't an old woman poke around the kitchen without being harassed?" "You aren't being harassed and this isn't your kitchen," Eleanor replied. "Drink more," Marietta whispered as she walked by her to the wall oven. Eleanor did as she was told, finishing off the glass and setting it on the counter. "Do you think that's really a good idea?" "Is what a good idea?" Eleanor asked, pouring more wine. "Drinking it so fast like that." Her mother walked over and reached for her glass. Eleanor snatched it away, spilling some of its contents on to the floor. "Give that back. I'm a grown woman. I'll drink wine if I want to." "So, your sons can see you get drunk and act stupid?" Her mother retreated to the other side if the room. Marietta sent her a look that nearly caused Eleanor to spit out her newest sip of wine. "In case you've forgotten, the twins are adults. Twenty-one years old next month. I'm sure they can handle it." "You've been so argumentative lately, Eleanor. I don't get it." "Are you actually serious right now?" Eleanor lost her cool, practically screaming at her mother.

She gripped the stem of her glass so hard it snapped in her hand. "My husband just died. Your feelings have not been my primary concern." Blood dripped from her palm as the glass crashed to the floor. "Eleanor! You're bleeding!" Marietta grabbed a dish towel and wrapped around her hand. "It's just a scratch," Eleanor said. "You're really working on the drama lately, Eleanor," her mom said, crossing her arms over her chest. "You're kidding, right?" Eleanor asked, much louder than she'd planned. "Some lunatic shot my husband in the middle of the street and I heard the entire thing. Do you know how hard it is to get those sounds, those memories out of my head? I'm trying to pick up the broken pieces of my life and find a way to put them all back together and your silly feelings are hurt because I didn't let you cook a turkey?" By the time the words had all tumbled out, she was sobbing and her mother looked like she'd just lost her best friend. Marietta wrapped an arm around Eleanor and tried to lead her back to the living room but Eleanor stayed rooted to the floor. She had so much more to say. "I appreciate you coming here and staying with us during the funeral and stuff. But, Momma, it's time to go home."

"So, you don't need me then?" Tears ran in rivers down Eleanor's face. So many emotions she'd worked to keep wrapped up tight all sprung loose at once. "It's not that I don't need you. I just need to start working things on my own. Like Gary's clothes—" The older woman turned red in the face. "I told you I was just trying to help!" "I get that. But it's something I have to do." Ricky appeared in the doorway, with Jackson and Jameson right behind him. "What happened? We heard something break." "It's nothing," Mari said, holding a broom. "Eleanor just dropped her glass." "Are you okay, Mom?" Jameson pushed past Ricky and ran to her, Jackson following. "You're crying and there's blood on your shirt." Eleanor kissed his cheek. "I'm fine, honey. Just broke my glass like Ms. Mari said." "Why does Grammy look so upset?" Jackson asked. "Your mother wants me to go home, so I'll be leaving in the morning. Jackson, could you please drive me back to your place so I can pack my things?" "No, Mom. That's not what I meant." Eleanor gave up fighting back the sobs. "I just need you to let me mourn my way and on my time." She crossed the room, carefully avoiding the

mess on the floor and stood in front of Eleanor, deep sadness clouding the blue in her eyes. The same blue Eleanor's own eyes were. "I guess your father has been gone long enough that I forgot what it felt like to want some control over my life in the wake of his death. The things I've tried to do, they weren't to speed up your mourning or take things from you, they were an attempt to make this a little easier for you. I'll back off. I really do think it’s time for me to head home. I hate the thought of you being alone but I have come to understand that you, in fact, are not alone because you have surrounded yourself such good friends." She reached up and touched Eleanor's face with her palm. "I'm so sorry you've lost Gary the way you did. I'm even more sorry that my presence has caused you so much more pain." Eleanor shook her head. "No, Mom, you haven't. I just need time to figure out how to do all of this by myself. Which kind of requires me to be by myself." "Oh, Ellie." Eleanor found herself wrapped up in a hug. "That's going to be the hardest thing you've ever done—being all alone in that big house. I wish I could take away all of your pain." Marietta opened the oven and pulled the turkey out, placing it on top of the stove. "Before anyone goes anywhere, how about we all sit down and eat together, and thank the good Lord we have all this

delicious food and each other to spend this day with?" "I think that sounds like a great plan," Jackson said, offering his arm to his grandmother. "Come on, Grammy, let's go eat." She accepted his arm but also picked up a bowl of veggies and handed them to him. "The least we can do is bring these to the table." She let Jackson lead her from the room, Jameson right behind them. Eleanor sagged against the counter. "I'm so sorry we ruined your Thanksgiving," "Oh, sweetie, you didn't ruin anything!" Marietta slung an arm around her. "That was bound to happen sooner or later. It's good that you were here with us instead of all alone with her when it did." "Yeah, I suppose." Jameson and Ricky were grabbing serving bowls loaded with veggies and other sides and carrying them to the table. Marietta set to slicing the turkey and putting a good bit on a platter. The more tasty smells that filled the kitchen, the more acutely aware Eleanor became of her own hunger. "Thank you, Mari, for inviting us today. I'm not sure how that would have gone if we were at home." "That's what friends are for." "Come on, you two." Jackson stuck his head back into the kitchen. "I'm about to eat it all

myself." Mari shooed him off with the dishtowel in her hand. "We will be right there." She picked up the platter. "Come on, Ellie. Let's do this." Eleanor followed her to the dining room. "Everything smells so good, babe," Ricky said, scooping piles of stuffing and mashed potatoes on to his plate. "Oh, yeah," Jameson said around a mouth full of food. "It does smell good," Helen said, grabbing a piece of turkey with her fork. Eleanor looked around at all the people at the table—people who love her and had loved Gary— and couldn't help but be just the tiniest bit thankful for all of them and the others who'd shown her and her sons so much love and kindness the last few weeks. When dinner was done and they'd helped clean up, Eleanor hugged her friend. "I'm going to get Mom home and I have to drop the boys at the police station. They are going to bring Gary's truck home." "I didn't realize you still hadn't done that." "The thought of it sitting in the driveway, a constant reminder…" Eleanor sighed. "I just couldn't deal with it. But it's time, you know?" Marietta nodded. "Yeah. I'm glad you have the boys to do it for you. When do they head back to

school?" "Tomorrow. They need the weekend to get organized and catch up on some things." "You can always come here anytime you feel like you want some company. Ricky works all the time anymore so I'm just here by myself most of the time." Eleanor smiled and hugged her friend once more. "Thanks, Mari. I'm so sorry Gary's death is hurting you so much too." Marietta squeezed her even tighter. "It's nothing to apologize for. It's life. The more he's missed, the more he was loved, right?" "Yes." Her mom appeared in the doorway to the kitchen. "Eleanor, you about ready?" "I'm coming. Are the boys good to go?" "Already in the car." To Marietta, she said, "Thank you for having us, Marietta. Dinner was absolutely delicious." "You are always welcome, Helen." "I better go. I'll talk to you soon. Thank you again for everything, Mari." An hour later, the boys had parked Gary's truck up near the garage and were getting ready to leave for school the next day. Her mother had gone to her room to pack and Eleanor sat on the edge of her bed, looking around her bedroom. So many reminders of Gary still sat everywhere. His favorite

sweatshirt hung on a hook on the back of the bedroom door. The closet containing all of his uniforms sat partially open, a pair of boots stuck between the door and the frame. When her mother had tried to empty Gary's drawers, she'd lost it on her. But, sitting there now, she kind of understood why. The constant reminders she'd expected to be comforting hurt to look at now. One day next week, she'd call Vivian and Marietta and see if they'd help her. She also needed to check in with her principal on Monday and let him know when she'd be returning to work. The second semester started in mid-January. That felt like a good time to go back. She had more than enough sick time to hold her until then. Slowly the house quieted. Eleanor changed in to one of Gary's old shirts and climbed into bed, not even bothering to wash her face or brush her teeth. It was not like she had anyone to wake up to anyway.



"I'm heading out, babe." Ricky kissed the back of her neck, sending a little shiver down her spine. He probably did it on purpose too, knowing the effect it had on her. Marietta turned and wrapped her arms around his neck. "Please be careful out there. I miss you already." "You know I always am." He kissed her again, on the lips this time. She sighed. "I know. I just worry. Now more than ever." He gave her another hug and then let her go to put on his jacket. "You got any plans this evening?" "I'm picking up Eleanor and going to the mall to

do a little Christmas shopping. She needs to get a few things for the twins and didn't want to go alone." "Be careful. I heard things were kinda crazy there last night." She smiled and blew him a kiss. "You know I always am." He leaned down and kissed her on the forehead. "I gotta go now or I'll be late. Text me if you need me. Love you." "I love you too," Marietta replied as he closed the door. Marietta grabbed her coat, purse, and keys and headed out to her own car. While the car warmed up, she sent a text to Eleanor letting her know she was on her way. Fifteen minutes later, she pulled into the Hart driveway and tapped her horn. Eleanor opened the door immediately and stepped outside, hurrying to the car. "Thank you so much for going with me," Eleanor said, as soon as she was seated. "The thought of all those people and Christmas music and general holiday cheer—I just wasn't up to it alone." "Don't you usually go with Vivian?" Marietta asked as she backed out of the driveway. "Yes. Every year we have a girl's day out, but this year, well, nothing is the same. There's a lot

going on in her life right now with Antonio. I don't feel right adding to it with my neediness." Marietta patted her knee. "You're not needy. You're just adjusting. Like Antonio needs to. He's having a rough time. Ricky talked to him this morning and he said Antonio was all over the place emotionally just in their ten minute conversation." Eleanor rubbed her hands together in front of one of the heating vents. "I wish I knew how to help." "I don't know if we can do anything. Survivor's guilt is tough." Eleanor nodded. "I know. I don't want to think about any of it tonight. I want to try really hard to get through this shopping trip without crying and pretend I have an ounce of Christmas spirit." "Sounds good to me. Let me set the mood." Marietta tuned the radio to the twenty-four hour a day Christmas music station. The familiar strains of Jingle Bells filled the car. "There, you can't get more spirited than that." The line to enter the mall was backed up to the interstate exit. Apparently, everyone in Virginia Beach had decided to go shopping. They listened to the radio and chatted about cookie recipes while the traffic slowly inched along. "Ricky said it had been pretty crazy here last night. I figured a Monday night wouldn't be as hectic as a weekend."

Eleanor shrugged. "It's ten days until Christmas. People are in panic mode, I suppose." "I could use a milkshake." Marietta finally pulled into a parking spot near the food court doors. "You know it's like twenty degrees outside, right?" Eleanor asked. "Chocolate milkshakes know no bounds." Marietta turned off the car and reached for her door handle. "You ready to do this?" "Ready," Eleanor replied, pushing her own door open. They hustled through the crowds, fighting the chilly wind and made it into the mall, red faced and giggling. It was the first time Marietta had seen Eleanor completely relaxed since before the night of the shooting. "You still want that milkshake?" Eleanor pointed to the food court. "I'll grab one on the way out. I'm too cold now." "Ah," said Eleanor. "Chocolate milk shakes do have boundaries." "Oh, hush." Marietta swiped at her friend's arm with her gloves. "Where do we start?" "Jackson needs jeans and Jameson needs a new hoodie and a couple long sleeved shirts." They found a store with great deals on clothes for the twins. Marietta also grabbed a couple long sleeved tees for Ricky. He liked to layer with them in the winter and this winter had already proven to

be colder than usual. After hitting the electronics store, the video game store, and a couple other little shops, they made it back to the food court. Eleanor held up her shopping bags. "This has been a good night. I am almost done. Thank you again for coming with me." She motioned to the restaurants. "Come on, I'll treat you to that shake." "I also wanted to get a chicken sandwich and some waffle fries," Marietta said, with a wink at Eleanor. "Fine," Eleanor said. "Chicken and waffle fries, it is." They headed to one of the stands and placed their order. As they waited, some raised voices caught their attention. Several hundred feet away a small group of young men and women had gathered. One of the guys was shoving another one and cursing at him. "I hope that doesn't go anywhere," Marietta said. She spoke too soon. The first boy swung at the second one. They fell to the ground and a second guy ran at another one head butting him in the abdomen. In seconds, the entire group had joined in. Two security officers and two uniformed police officers ran past them shouting. Bystanders grabbed their food and packages and ran the other way. "Gun!" someone shouted. "He's got a gun!" A shot rang out followed by the sound of

shattering glass. The bullet had hit one of the windows that overlooked the parking lot. Eleanor dropped her bags to the floor. She was rooted to the spot she stood in, her eyes unfocused. "Get down!" Marietta grabbed Eleanor and dragged her to the floor. "Here! Come back here!" A restaurant employee waved them over to an open gate. Marietta grabbed Eleanor's bags with one hand and dragged Eleanor by her hand with the other. "Come on! We gotta get out of the way!" Another shot rang out, followed by another. "Get in the back," the employee instructed them and several other bystanders. When the tiny kitchen was full, he slammed the door shut and locked it. Eleanor's face was white as a ghost. "Eleanor? Can you hear me?" She looked through Marietta, her blank stare unnerving. "Make it stop, Mari." "They're gonna be okay, El. It's going to be okay." "Is she all right?" a man wearing a name tag that read Bill asked. "No," Marietta replied. "Her husband was murdered the week before Thanksgiving. Shot while he was on duty. She heard the entire thing over the phone." "You mean that cop that was shot down in the

street by the druggie?" Marietta exhaled heavily. "Yes." "Oh, ma'am, I am so sorry," the manager said to Eleanor but she didn't even look at him. She just watched the door, wincing every time they heard something loud. "Here," the manager offered Marietta a cup of ice water. "Maybe this will help her come out of it?" "Thank you." Marietta accepted the cup and tried to coax Eleanor to take a sip but she shook her head, just kept watching the door. A minute or two later, it got unusually quiet out in the food court. "Do you think it's over?" someone asked. "I hope so," another person said. "I knew coming here was a mistake. From now on I do all my holiday shopping online." A loud knock sounded on the door. "Police! Everyone all right in there?" "That's Ricky," Marietta shoved through the small crowd and pulled open the door to a shocked Ricky staring back at her. She jumped into his arms. "Marietta! Are you okay? Where's Eleanor?" He grabbed her up in a hug, crushing her against his chest. "She's right behind me. We're not hurt. But I'm worried about Eleanor." "Hold on, babe, let me get these other people

outta here then we will get Eleanor to the car." He waved an arm at the group. "It's safe to come out now. Please head straight to the exit and go home. The mall is now closed." Marietta and Ricky waited as the kitchen cleared except for the employees who started cleaning up and switching things off. Eleanor leaned against a wall, that eerie look still in her eyes. "Eleanor? It's me, Ricky. Everything is okay now. We're going to get you out of here." She slowly turned her head and looked at Ricky. "Was anyone hurt?" "No. The bullets didn't hit anyone." Eleanor sagged against the wall. "Thank God. It was like that night all over again. I could hear it but I couldn't see it." Marietta wrapped an arm around her. "I know, sweetie. Let's get you out of here." She nodded. "Yeah, I'm all shopped out. Sorry you didn't get your milkshake." Marietta laughed. "That's the last thing on my mind right now." To Ricky, she said, "Be extra careful now. The crazies are stepping it up." Ricky nodded toward the group of cops still milling around. "I've gotta get back over there. Get her home and text me when you get there." "I will. I love you. Be safe." "Love you too."

Marietta led Eleanor out of the mall. When they hit the crisp night air, she took a deep, steadying breath. Her hands were shaking as the adrenaline dump kicked in. Marietta turned to her friend. "You okay, Eleanor?" "I'm fine. It was just so, I don't know…" "Scary?" Marietta asked. "Yes. But we are safe and no one was hurt, so that's good. I think I am ready to go home now though." Eleanor's bravado didn't fool her. She could see the fear in her friend's eyes. "Yeah, me too." They made it to the car and Marietta put all the bags in the back seat while Eleanor got in. Once the car was warmed up, they left the mall behind and headed home. When they pulled up in front of Eleanor's house, she turned to look at Marietta. "That was some girl's night out, wasn't it?" Marietta laughed. "Never a dull moment, I suppose. Want me to come inside for a bit? Maybe make some tea?" Eleanor shook her head. "I'd much rather open a bottle of wine." "You got it, lady." She shut off the car and grabbed all the packages from the back seat before following Eleanor to the door. "I still can't get used to this house being so quiet all the time now that the boys are back at school for

a couple of weeks." She motioned to the bottom of the stairs. "You can set my stuff right there. Thank you for bringing it in for me." "You need a pet," Marietta replied, following Eleanor to the kitchen. "Oh, heck no. I'm struggling to take care of myself right now. I can't imagine having to remember to walk a dog or feed another living creature." Eleanor opened a cabinet and took out two glasses. From the refrigerator she produced a bottle of wine that she opened and poured the liquid in to the glasses. "I'm so glad no one was hurt tonight," Marietta said as she lifted her glass to take a sip of wine. "Me too." Eleanor also took a drink. "The night had been going so well before that." Marietta nodded. "It wasn't a total bust. You finished a big chunk of your shopping." "True. Let's go sit in the living room. I want to turn on the gas fireplace. The air in here is chilly." "Okay. Did you ever call my guy to get the system looked at?" "I did. They said it was fixed but the downstairs stays cold pretty much all the time right now." Eleanor led the way to the living room, turning on the fireplace and grabbing two blankets before they settled on the sofa. "I suppose I'll have to call again." "Thanks," Marietta said, accepting one of the

blankets. "Nights like tonight I will really miss Gary's heat. Sleeping with him was like sleeping next to an oven. He put off enough warmth for both of us." "I don't know what it is but Ricky is the same way. They must have different thermostat settings than we do." Eleanor shrugged. "Whatever it was, I miss it." Marietta reached over and gave a light squeeze to Eleanor's hand. "I know you do, sweetie. What can I do to help?" Eleanor sighed. "I don't think there's anything anyone can do. He's gone. I have to learn to accept that and find a way to live with it." "I'm always here for you. Vivian too." "She's got Antonio to worry about." Marietta thought about the phone call she'd gotten from Vivian earlier that day about Antonio's bout with night terrors. "He needs to see someone but I don't think he's too agreeable to that." "Gary wouldn't have been. He thought himself strong enough to handle anything. In my opinion though, if he couldn't shoot it or taze it, he had no idea how to handle it." "Ricky would rather taze himself than see a shrink." "And if the department found out—would he lose his job for sure then?" "Supposedly, no. But you know how

department politics run." Eleanor leaned back against the couch and looked up at the ceiling. "This whole thing is so stupid. If Gary were here, he'd be angry that they are dragging Antonio through all of this. I can't even figure out what they think he did." Marietta shrugged. "I think it's more about what they think he should have done." "Are they looking to place blame for Gary's death? Doesn't that belong with man who killed him?" "I wish I understood, but I don't." Eleanor wiped at the corner of her eyes. "So, I am a widow. My boys have lost their father. Our family is forever changed by this and they are looking to ruin another family? It just doesn't make sense to me. Maybe I should call the department. Ask them to let it go, for Gary." "I'm not sure they would listen to you." "I feel like I should do something. Antonio and Vivian don't deserve this." She closed her eyes. "None of this is how it should be." Marietta fought to hold back her own tears, in an effort to be strong for her friend. "I keep trying to figure out what I can do to make it easier and I am at a loss." Eleanor opened her eyes and leaned over to hug Marietta. "You are doing it right now." She pulled back and looked at Marietta. "How you are doing?

You haven't said much lately about your life." Marietta shrugged. "Same old, I guess. Ricky works all the time. More now than ever. I am still a failure at becoming a mother." "Oh, Mari, another negative test? Why didn't you tell me?" She nodded. "I found out right after Gary died. You have enough going on in your life and this is nothing new to me." Eleanor gave her a hug. "That's what makes it so much harder. I'm so sorry. I should have asked you before this." "I've come to the conclusion that I am not meant to be a mother." "There's always adoption. Or, in vitro." "Ricky won't talk about either of those. He's convinced we will get pregnant on our own. It's been five years, El. I don't know how many more times I can go through this. Not to mention the fact that I am getting older." "You could try some of my grandmother's tricks she told me to do when we were trying to get pregnant." Marietta narrowed her eyes. "Like what?" "Like, stand on your head for ten minutes after sex. Or, drink this crazy concoction of vinegar and honey and some other stuff that is supposed to make the pH of your uterus optimal. There some other suggestions about moon cycles and sexual

positions but I'd have to call her to ask about those." Marietta shook her head, laughing. "I think I will stick to more traditional means." "At least it's fun trying, right?" Eleanor asked. "Not as much fun as it should be. Every time we have sex now, it feels almost mechanical. Like, okay, let's make a baby. Wham. Bam. Thank you, ma'am. There's zero romance. We don't take our time anymore." "As the old lady in the room who hasn't been through what you are going through, the only advice I can give is stop putting so much pressure on yourselves. Enjoy each other. Enjoy the intimacy while you have it. A baby puts a huge damper on your sex life for a while, you know." Marietta took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "Maybe if Ricky were home more. He's changed Eleanor. He's still the same old Ricky sometimes but then other times, he's not. There are days where he is preoccupied and moody and I think it's my fault." Eleanor patted Marietta's hand. "Unfortunately, part of that is the job. All the things they see, all the evil they deal with on a daily basis, it gets in there and it—it's like it puts out a flame that used to burn in them. The flame that made them lighthearted and easy going. They spend so much time on duty, watching everything and expecting the worst from

everyone that it gets harder and harder to shut off." "Gary wasn't like that." Eleanor let out a low whistle. "Oh, yes, he was. He just got good at faking it over the years. Gary was such an easy-going guy when we were young. Everyone liked him and he liked everyone. He'd give someone the shirt off his back if they said they needed it. And then he got on the job and slowly that brightness in his eyes dimmed. Honestly, I don't know how they get through each day with their sanity." "Ricky doesn't talk much about his work." "Gary rarely did either. I think he thought he was protecting me. Once in a while though, he had to talk about something that happened, just to try and make sense of it, I guess. I remember the first call Gary went to that really affected him. That's when the change started. A young boy, maybe eight or nine, had found a gun that someone had brought to the house. He was showing it off to his little brother, I think he was four or five, and the gun went off, killing the little brother instantly." "That's awful!" Marietta said. "I think he was haunted by that scene every day of his life after that. There was another one that really got to him. A woman, about his age, died of a massive heart attack unexpectedly. She woke up and didn't feel well, went to the bathroom and died. It took a long time to get the door open because

she'd fallen against it. He talked about that one for a while." "Do you think that is what is happening with Ricky?" Eleanor nodded. "Especially right now. He was there, and he saw his friend laying in the road, covered with blood. Not only will he have that memory forever, but think about what it is doing to him mentally. How it has made him face his own mortality." "I never thought about it like that." Marietta sniffed. "I'm supposed to be making you feel better and here you are counseling me." Eleanor smiled. "We are helping each other. We —you, me, and Vivian—are our own thin blue line sisterhood. We've got each other's backs always." "I never expected it to be this way, you know," Marietta said, running her fingers over the blanket she had on her lap. "What way?" Eleanor asked. "This job. It takes over everything." "Only if you let it, Mari. Only if you let it." Eleanor leaned over and rested her head on Marietta's shoulder. "That's why we need each other. To keep our heads above water and not let it drown us."



"Are you sure you're up for this?" Marietta watched her from her spot on the bed. She had a stack of boxes on the floor in front of her and a pile of bags on the bed next to her. Eleanor released a shaky breath. "I have to do it. Ready or not. Mom was right." "But it's only been a few weeks, honey," Vivian said. "No one thinks you need to do it all now." Eleanor nodded. "I do. For me. Now that the boys are back to school, and my mother is finally gone, this is what I need to do. Gary would be upset with me if I kept it all." "Still, it can wait until after the new year if you need more time," Marietta said.

"No. I don't want to wait. Gary is never coming back. Looking at all his things like this—it's a constant reminder of him and what I've lost. I need to get my footing in this new normal that's been forced on me." "Okay, then. Let's make it happen." Vivian picked up a box and headed to the closet. "I'll pack up his shoes and boots." "I can start on the dresser." Marietta stood up and grabbed a shopping bag. "Is there anything you know you want to keep?" "If you find his academy sweatshirt, I want that." "You got it, girl." Marietta started opening drawers and pulling out socks and underwear. "I'm going to just toss this stuff out. I don't know anywhere that takes used jockey shorts for donation." "Okay," Eleanor said. "So, you survived Thanksgiving with your mother?" Vivian called out from the closet. "Thanks to Marietta and Ricky. They kept her busy eating and talking all day so we just had one minor mishap. Even the boys had a good day." Marietta laughed. "You know my Ricky. He can entertain anyone. He's a natural." Eleanor walked over to the bed and selected a box and a bag. "I don't think I said it before, but thank you. I appreciate all the effort you put into

that amazing meal to make us feel comfortable. Everyone keeps telling me the first of everything is the hardest and I was really worried, especially for Jameson and Jackson. Ricky was great with them." "How are they doing now that they are back to school?" Vivian emerged from the closet with the box of shoes all closed up and ready to go. "Jackson called last night. Said they had a few things to make up but that it shouldn’t be an issue. All of their professors were very understanding, given the circumstances." "That's good. They are both such driven young men. I'd hate to see them struggle with school too." Marietta tied up the bag of socks and underwear and tossed it in a corner before pulling out the next drawer. "Oh, here’s the sweatshirt you wanted." She tossed it on to the bed. Vivian came out of the walk-in closet holding a small wood box. "Hey, Ellie, I found this on the shelf under his jeans." "What is it? I don't recognize it." Vivian handed it to her. Eleanor set it on the dresser before flipping the top up. Inside sat a miscellaneous collection of items. Eleanor picked up the photo off the top of the pile. It was one of the two of them, Gary in uniform and Eleanor pinning his badge to his chest. They both looked so young, so expectant and happy for the future to come. She touched his face with her finger, wishing

it were really him. "This is at Gary's academy graduation." "I've never seen this one before." Vivian took the photo and turned it over. "Look, he wrote something on the back." She handed the photo back to Eleanor. She turned it over and recognized Gary's tight script. He'd only written two words: My love. Eleanor held the photo to her heart. "He never came across as a romantic man but maybe he really was." "Judging by the things he held onto, I'd say he was very romantic." Marietta pushed the box toward her. "Look." She did. The next things she saw, the twins' hospital bracelets from the day they were born, brought moisture to her eyes. She thought she'd thrown those away. A cocktail napkin from their favorite date night spot, a seashell painted with the words St. Lucia from their honeymoon, the first pair of cufflinks she'd ever given him. She'd found them at a tag sale. They weren't worth anything but the crystal blue stones had exactly matched the color of his eyes. "I can't believe he kept all these things." Eleanor wiped at her eyes and sniffed. "I can," Vivian said. "You were his whole world." "And now he's gone and this is what I am left

with." Eleanor pushed the box away. Marietta reached in and pulled out a pink hair tie. "But, what if that is why he saved all these things? So, that if something ever did happen to him, you'd know the things that were important to him and how much he loved you." "Maybe." Eleanor took the hair tie from Marietta. "I used to wear that all the time when the twins were babies. They liked to yank my hair so I kept it braided. I'd wondered where it had gotten off to." "This is your piece of Gary. He left it behind for you," Vivian said. She nodded, her eyes filling with tears. "I had no idea he'd been doing this all these years." "Do you want to look at the rest of it?" Marietta asked. "We can leave you alone for a few minutes." Eleanor reached for a tissue on her nightstand and blew her nose. She shook her head. "I can't right now." Eleanor closed the lid. "If I go through the rest of this now, I'll never get these clothes taken care of." "The clothes can wait, Ellie," Vivian said. "If you want them to." "No. I'm not ready to look at it all now." She picked up the box and walked over to the night stand. Pulling out the drawer, she tucked the box inside and closed the drawer again. She needed to look at the rest of the contents when her heart

wasn't so fragile. Preferably alone so she could take the time to cherish each item's memory. Eleanor grabbed a box and bag and pulled open a second, smaller closet. Inside it hung all of Gary's uniforms and work gear. The light scent of cinnamon and pine drew her in closer. Gary's cologne. He'd worn the same brand since they were in middle school and it had always brought her comfort. Now—now it caused her heart to race and the room to shift. She touched the sleeve of one of his shirts, the rough polyester as familiar to her as her own name. Running her fingers over the shiny silver badge that hung on a chain on a nail inside the door, then reached out and touched the extra duty belt that he'd slung over the rod in the closet. His Kevlar vest hung on a heavy wooden hanger beside it. So many nights of her helping him dress for work flashed through her mind. Before every shift, she'd help him into that vest, pulling the straps closed and securing him into protective layers. The sound of the Velcro had comforted her. It was their thing, Gary'd always said. Their routine. Police work had made him superstitious. He never broke from routine. Except they had broken routine. That night, before his shift, she'd been hanging out with her friends. Gary hadn't wanted to bother her. She hadn't been there to strap on his vest and keep the

routine. Oh, God! Was it her fault Gary'd died? If she'd been there… No. It wasn't her fault. Tears came of their own accord, sliding down her face and dripping from her chin to her shirt. A sob ripped through her. Dropping the box and bag, she wrapped her arms around herself. "Oh, Gary. Why?" As her legs began to give way, she felt arms wrap around her. "It's okay, Ellie. We've got you." Marietta and Vivian held her as they walked to a small chair in the corner of the room and sat her in it. "It's my fault," she said, between sobs. "My fault." "Oh, sweetie, it's not." Marietta kneeled down in front of her and smoothed Eleanor's hair back from her face. "You don't understand! I broke the routine. Gary had always said, don't break the routine. Things happen then." "What routine, Ellie?" Vivian asked. "His vest. I always helped him put on his vest. He wasn't wearing it that night. It's still in the closet." Sob after sob tore through her, each one filled with more anguish than the one before it. "He must have had another one. Maybe he kept it at work or in his patrol unit?" Marietta said. Vivian rubbed little circles all over her back.

"It's not your fault, Ellie. No more than it is Antonio's fault. Remember? A few days ago, you insisted a drugged out addict was responsible. How can it also be your fault?" "What happened was a horrible tragedy but you are not to blame." Marietta stood up and walked over to the dresser where she picked up a picture of Gary and Eleanor. "This man loved you more than life itself. Do you really think he'd want you to spend the rest of your life blaming yourself for something you had no control over?" "No," Eleanor replied, drawing a ragged breath. "Then stop right now." Eleanor accept the framed photograph that Marietta held out to her. She slowly traced the outline of Gary in the picture. He looked so happy and relaxed. Alive. The photo was only a few months old, taken over the summer at the beach. They'd escaped for an afternoon, packing a lunch and wading in the surf like they had as teenagers. Eleanor hugged the frame to her chest. "I just miss him so much." The tears returned. Marietta and Vivian wrapped their arms around her once more. "I know you do," Vivian said. "I can't even begin to imagine how much," Marietta said.

"Do you want to call it quits for today?" Vivian asked. "No. I need to do this." Eleanor stood up and walked toward the bathroom. "Just give me a minute?" Without waiting for a reply, she went in to the bathroom and closed the door. Flipping on the light switch, she stood in front of the mirror looking at herself. The reflection that stared back didn’t even look like her with its red rimmed eyes complete with dark black smudges under them. Her skin was pale and splotchy and her hair hung in a snarly mess over her shoulders. Turning on the cold tap, Eleanor splashed some icy water on her face. She was determined to get through this day. Using the towel to pat her face dry, Eleanor watched as the harsh red in her cheeks cooled to a soft pink once again. A knock sounded. "You okay in there?" Marietta asked. "I'm fine. I'll be out in a minute," Eleanor called through the bathroom door, hoping she sounded more convincing than she felt. After one more splash of water, she dried off and opened the bathroom door. Her friends stood there, looking worried. Eleanor nodded. "I'm good. I promise." "I still think we should continue a different day," Marietta said.

Eleanor shook her head. "Nope. I've had my allotted meltdown for today. I want to do this. Plus, the department called yesterday wanting to know when I could turn in his gear." "Seriously?" Vivian dropped the bag of clothes she held by the bedroom door. "They couldn't wait a couple of weeks?" Eleanor shrugged. "It's okay. I don't want it here anyway. It's just a constant reminder." "Do you want me to pack up that stuff?" Marietta asked. "No." Eleanor picked up an empty box. "This is something I need to do myself." "We're here if you need us." Vivian hugged her, hard. "I hate that you have to do any of this." "Me too." Eleanor took a deep breath and walked back to the closet. "It's time, Gary," she said quietly as she stood once again in front of his things. "I love you, sweetheart. This doesn't change that." Slowly, she took each polyester shirt and each pair of uniform pants off of their hanger and folded them neatly. Each piece went into the box on top of the last. When she was done, she moved on to the vest, removing it from its hanger and laying it on top of the folded clothes. Picking up his extra flashlight and sets of handcuffs, she set those in the box alongside the uniforms. Using the key he kept hidden in a shoe, she opened the lock box on top of

the shelf and checked to see if there was anything in it. He'd had his gun and taser with him the night of the shooting so it was empty. As far as she could tell, there was nothing else that belonged to the police department so she picked up the box and left the closet. "It all fit in here." She set the box on the bed. "I need to know if he had a vest on that night. I thought that he did but there was too much going on in the hospital. I can't remember anymore." "I'll have Ricky try to find out." Marietta pulled out her cell phone and typed out a quick text. A moment later her phone dinged, indicating an incoming text. "He says he thinks so but he will look into it to find out for sure." "Thank you." Eleanor sat on the edge of the bed and looked at the pile of bags stacked by the door. "My husband's life reduced to a couple of boxes and a few garbage bags." Vivian sat down next to her and wrapped an arm around her. "No, Ellie. Those are just pieces of clothing. His entire life is here." She pointed to Eleanor's heart. "And here." Vivian pointed to Eleanor's head. "Only his body is gone. Gary lives on with you." "I want to touch him again. Just once more. I want him to hug me and kiss me and tell me he will see me later, just like always." "I wish I could do that for you." Marietta sat

down on the bed on the other side of her. "I'd give anything to be able to go back in time and tell him not to go to that call." Eleanor shook her head. "You know he wouldn't have listened to anyone. A fellow officer was in trouble." Marietta sighed. "Yeah, I know. But I'd still try. Handcuff him to my car or something if I had to." Eleanor patted her friend on the knee. "I appreciate the thought but Gary always carried an extra cuff key. It wouldn't have helped." "No lie," Vivian said. "The man had handcuffs and a knife in the pocket of his tux on his wedding day. You know, just in case. Eleanor looked over at her friend. "How did you know about that?" "Antonio was his best man, remember?" "When we were dancing our first dance as a married couple, I ran my hand up over his jacket and felt something hard in the inside pocket. Stuck my hand in there and felt the cuffs first. Gary started laughing. I thought he had all these wild ideas for the honeymoon. Turns out he recognized one of the staff at the reception hall and was worried he'd have to arrest him or something." "Remember how he insisted that the head table had to be on the opposite side of the room so his back would be to a wall and he could see the door?" Vivian asked. "Antonio had a hand in that

one, I'm sure." Eleanor smiled for the first time all day. "Yes! The banquet hall manager was so upset. Moving the table upset the cosmic energies or something." "I wish I'd known you all then," Marietta said. "Weren't you still in diapers the year I got married?" Eleanor poked her friend lightly in the ribs. "I was not!" Marietta picked up a throw pillow and tossed it at Eleanor. "I was in high school." "Baby," Vivian said. "Old woman." Marietta hit her with a pillow too. "Grandma!" "Oh, lord, don't even joke about that." Vivian fell backward on to the bed. "Tony's gotta get a scholarship and go to college before I'll even entertain those thoughts." "I know what you mean. I pray every night that the twins don't make me a grandmother just yet. I'm too young to be chasing grandbabies around." "Hey," Marietta said. "I've got Ricky's truck. Let's go drop those things off at the donation center so you don't have to worry about doing it yourself." "Could we drop by the station first so I can return his gear?" Eleanor asked. "Of course." They each grabbed some boxes and bags and followed Marietta out of the house. They tossed the things into the bed of the truck. Once they were all

settled in the cab of the truck, Marietta headed to the police station. "Want me to go in with you?" Vivian asked when they pulled up in front of the police department headquarters building. "No. I've got this." Eleanor exited the truck and walked around to grab the box of equipment out of the bed. Hefting the box up in front of her, Eleanor climbed the wide steps to the front door of the building. Pushing the button by the door, she waited to be buzzed inside. "Mrs. Hart!" The sergeant that opened the door looked at her with a mix of pity and curiosity. "What brings you here?" She held out the box. "Gary's uniforms and equipment. What I had. Some of it was with him obviously." He took the box from her. "I could have sent a car around to get it. Or Vasquez could have brought it in." Eleanor shook her head. "It's okay, my friends gave me ride." His expression turned serious. "How are you doing? Do you need anything?" She shrugged. "I'm—okay. I mean, as okay as I can be. I miss him." A little moisture filled her eyes but she was determined not to cry in front of someone she hardly knew.

He clasped her shoulder lightly. "Hart was a good man and a great cop. The absolute best. He has left some huge boots to fill around here." "Thank you. I appreciate hearing that." She held out her hand and the sergeant accepted it in a gentle grasp. "If you will excuse me, my ride is waiting." "Absolutely. Take care of yourself, Mrs. Hart. And please, call the station if you need anything. Anything at all." She nodded. "Thank you. I will." Eleanor walked out of the station, more than likely for the very last time and returned to the truck that waited for her. "How did it go?" Vivian asked as soon as she pulled open the door. "The way you'd expect. The building was mostly empty. One of the day sergeants was there. He took the box and told me to call them if I ever need anything. What's that supposed to mean anyway? I need my husband back. Pretty sure they can't help me with that. I need to turn back the clock and tell him not to go to that call. That will never happen—" The newest bout of tears cut her off. Eleanor sat in the front seat of her friend's truck literally feeling her heart break in her chest for the hundredth time since that night. Vivian, who sat in the back seat, leaned forward and wrapped her arms around her. Eleanor barely

noticed. The flood just kept coming. Marietta held her hand and spoke soothing words to her but she didn't understand any of it. The grief held her prisoner, blocking her senses and her thoughts. Sometime later, it began to rain. An icy rain that cracked against the windshield and roof of the truck. The sound lulled her out of her grief coma, calming the tears slowly and steadily. Finally, she took a deep, stuttering breath, then exhaled it slowly. "I-I'm sorry. I have no idea where that came from." "It came from being strong for too long." Vivian squeezed her in a hug then sat back against the seat. "I've cried before. Lots of times. But this was different." "The shock is wearing off and reality is setting in. My mama went through the same thing when my papa died suddenly." Marietta patted the back of her hand. "You needed to let it out. Grief is a heavy weight to carry." "I'm sorry you both had to witness that. Again." Eleanor opened the glove box looking for something to blow her nose in. A huge wad of fast food restaurant napkins fell to her feet. She laughed. "I guess Ricky likes to eat out." Marietta looked horrified. "He's supposed to be

on a diet! He's been lying to me this whole time!" Eleanor leaned over and picked up the stack of napkins. "Gary always used to say that the only cheating I ever had to worry about him doing involved cheeseburgers and tacos. I think maybe Ricky has a few secret lovers too." This made Marietta laugh. "I guess." She shook her head. "That man is something else. All protein shakes and work outs at home and the whole time he's been sneaking around." "Should we go drop off the donation stuff now?" Vivian asked. "I'll buy you both cheeseburgers after we're done." "Sounds good to me." Marietta shifted the truck in to drive. "Me too." For the first time in days, Eleanor actually wanted to eat something. "I'm getting fries too, just so you know." "Consider it done." "Thank you both for helping me through today. I couldn't have done it without you," Eleanor said. "You know we will always be here for you," Vivian replied. "Always," Marietta said.



"Tony! Get down here and take out this trash!" Antonio stormed out of the kitchen to the bottom of the steps. "Tony! Now!" "I'm coming already!" Tony yelled back, stomping down the hallway. "Why you gotta be such a jerk all the time?" As soon as the words left her son's mouth, Vivian braced herself. It was not going to be pretty. "Who are you talking to like that?" Antonio had switched to his don't mess with me voice. He was pissed. She knew it and she couldn't even see the redness of his face or the vein at his temple that was more than likely throbbing. Tony's footsteps stopped, probably at the top of

the steps. Once he got a look at his father's face, he had to have realized his mistake. "Dude, I was on the toilet. That's all I'm saying. You didn't give me a chance to answer you." "I don't care if you were wiping the Pope's ass! That doesn't give you the right to talk to me that way. I am your father, not one of your buddies." Please let her son be smart enough to quit while he was ahead. "You got that right. At least I can count on my buddies." Damn. That was her cue to intervene. Stepping out of her office, she surveyed the scene. Antonio stood at the foot of the stairs, growling. Tony looked down at him from the landing, a dare in his eyes she'd only ever seen from Antonio before this moment. "Come on, you two. There's enough anger in the world without bringing it in to our home." "This has nothing to do with anger. Our son doesn't know how to show respect." "I show plenty of respect. To people that deserve it." Tony's taunt worked. Antonio grabbed the rail and bounded up the steps but Tony was quicker, he ran to his room and slammed the door. The lock clicked, followed by loud music. Vivian ran up the steps, getting to the top just in time to see Antonio getting ready to ram the door with his shoulder, like he was serving a warrant.

"Antonio!" He stopped and looked at her, then back at the door. Anger made his dark eyes wild. "He needs to take out the trash!" He stepped back, ready to kick the knob. "Stop, Antonio!" "What?" "Look what you're about to do!" She pointed at the door. His shoulders slumped and she could see the defeat in his eyes. "My son hates me. He thinks I'm a joke, just like everyone else does." "Oh, honey, no one thinks you are a joke." Vivian rushed toward him to hug him but Antonio side stepped her. "I'm going for a run." Without another word, he pushed past Vivian and ran back down the steps. She felt the house shake as he slammed the front door. Tony's door opened and he looked out in to the hall. "Dad gone?" "You want to explain yourself?" Vivian narrowed her eyes at her only child. "Were you trying to get him all worked up?" Tony shrugged. "At least he’s doing something other than sitting in front of the television and drinking." "That's none of your concern." He had a point though.

"He's a lousy father. He has no interest in me at all." Vivian folded her arms and leaned against the hallway wall. "I seem to remember a certain young man telling me he didn't want his father at his last basketball game." "That's because he nearly ruined my entire future at the last one! All he does is yell and act pissed all the time." "Tony, your father is going through a tough time right now." He slapped at the door to his bedroom. "He was like that before Mr. Gary died. Nothing I ever do is good enough. I was in the bathroom when he bellowed for me. It takes a second to wrap things up, you know?" Vivian sighed. She felt like she did that a lot lately. "Please cut him a little slack right now? I know he's not perfect but he is the only father you have and he just lost his best friend. Not to mention the city questioning his actions." "Yeah, God forbid the world's best cop ever make a mistake." "You're kinda pushing your luck right now," Vivian said. "Like it or not, he is your father and you are pretty disrespectful to him." "He's ruining my life. I don't exactly feel all warm and fuzzy about the man at the moment." Vivian ran a hand over her eyes, closing them

and counting to five before speaking. "Tell me, please, how your father is ruining your life." "Everyone on the team hates me. They think he's the reason Mr. Gary died. Not to mention how embarrassing he was at the game." "They can't all hate you. Your teammates have always looked up to you." He shrugged. "Right now, I'm not so popular. One of the guys was passing a cell phone around the other day. It had a video of Dad at the shooting. I didn't want to watch but I couldn't resist either. It shows him just standing there. He didn't even have his gun out, Mom. He didn't even try to save Mr. Gary." That was new information to her that might actually explain Antonio's guilt over the incident. "We weren't there, honey. Your father, Mr. Gary, and the suspect are the only ones that really know what went down. Maybe there wasn't time. Or maybe a civilian was in the way." Tony shook his head. "No way, the video doesn't show anyone. Did the entire town love Mr. Gary that much?" "I don't think it's that, Tony." "Then what?" "People love to be critical these days. The look for every excuse to condemn the actions of others. If your father or Mr. Gary had shot and killed the suspect, we'd all be hearing how they acted with

excessive force and the police department is insensitive to mental illness." They stood there together in the hallway for a long moment before Tony headed down the hall past his mother. "I better get that trash out before Dad gets back." She let him go. There had always been some unwritten rule about how much serious discussion she could get out of her son on any one given topic. Not to mention, he was right. If the trash weren't done when Antonio got back from his run, there would be hell to pay. About an hour later, a knock sounded at the door. Antonio must have forgot his key. "Where did you run to? Norfolk?" Vivian asked as she pulled the door open. "What's going on? Antonio?" Antonio stood on the front stoop, an officer she didn't recognize standing beside him. Antonio was in handcuffs and sporting a black eye, nearly swollen shut. "Good evening, ma'am." "What happened to my husband?" she asked the cop. "He started a bar fight. Got punched in the face by one of the bouncers." Vivian shook her head. "He did what? I thought you just went for a run?" Antonio shrugged. "It started out that way."

"The bartender wanted to press charges but I talked her out of it. He's pretty drunk though and he assaulted several people. He really should spend the night in the tank but if you want to take responsibility for him, under the circumstances, I'm good with it." "Under the circumstances?" she asked. He nodded. "You know Officer Hart's death and all." "Right. Fine. Okay. I'll take him. Thank you for bringing him home." "Try to stay off the booze, Russo, would ya? The chief were to find out about this, you might lose your job." He unlocked the cuffs and gave Antonio a little nudge. "Go inside and sober up. Take care of yourself, man." The officer turned and walked away. Vivian closed the door. "What the hell, Antonio?" He lifted his arms to remove his hoodie. The movement caused him to lose his balance and he crashed against the closet door. "What the fuck," Antonio cursed as he grabbed at something to keep from losing his balance again. Unfortunately, there was nothing and he landed flat on his backside with a thump. Antonio huffed as he dragged himself to his feet. Waves of alcohol emanated from him. "You stink like booze. Bar fights? Seriously,

Antonio. Aren't things bad enough right now?" "I got tired. Pulled over for a rest and had a beer." He reached for her but Vivian turned and walked away. Antonio followed her right in to her office. "Come on, baby. Don't be mad. It was just one drink." "No, Antonio. I'm guessing it was way more than that. Maybe one bottle of Jack? Your eyes are red, your balance is off, and your speech is slurred." "Is this about the trash? I might have been a little rough on Tony." She walked over to her desk and sat in the chair. "This has nothing to do with Tony. Although you were a complete jerk to him tonight. This is about you. And the overabundance of alcohol you have consumed since that night." "How many times do I have to say it? My best friend was shot in front of me and my department thinks it was my fault. So, yeah, I've kinda been in a bad space lately. But, I'll pull through it. I always do." Vivian shrugged. "Yeah. I just hope it's not too late." "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Antonio stepped up to the front of her desk and leaned forward so he looked her in the eye. He wobbled a little and had to grab the desk with his hands to keep from falling forward. Vivian raised

one eyebrow but he acted like nothing had just happened. "It means you need to get your shit squared away and stop treating us like we are some suspects in a murder investigation." Antonio paced the room. "Is that what you think? That I'm treating you like a suspect?" Vivian slapped her hands down on her desk and jumped to her feet. "I don't know! I just know that I am trying so hard to be there for you and you just keep pushing me away!" He dropped down onto the little loveseat she had in the room and rested his head in his hands. "When I was outside tonight, the thought crossed my mind—if I just ran out in front of a car or a truck, then all this pain would go away." "Antonio!" Her eyes filled with tears. She backed away from him, her hand over her mouth, trying to stifle a sob. "Why would you—" "I didn't do it, obviously. But I thought about it. That's why I went to the bar where I had a few drinks to quiet the voice." "Did it work?" she asked, quietly. "I'm not sure." "But, why wouldn't you just talk to me about it?" He hung his head. "I've never done this before, Viv. I've never watched my best friend die in front of me. I don't know what I'm doing here."

"But running in front of a truck—killing yourself—isn't the answer. Why haven't you told me this before?" He shrugged. "I don't know. It's not something I think about all the time. The thought just occurs to me like it did tonight." Vivian walked over and sat beside him, placing her hand on his upper back. "Maybe it's time to get some help. Maybe call a counselor?" "If I call the department counselors, everyone will know in twenty-four hours. They will think I'm crazy." He looked up at her, the saddest expression she'd ever seen on his face. "I'm not crazy, Viv." "Oh sweetheart, I know you're not crazy. But, I do think you need some help with this heavy load you are carrying." "I don't know where to start." "First, you need to give up the alcohol for a while. Tomorrow I will call the doctor and get you an appointment. I think he will know what direction to point us in." Antonio leaned a head on her shoulder. "I'm sorry I'm such an asshole." Vivian kissed the top of his head. "You might be an asshole, but you're mine and we are in this together." "I love you." "I love you, too," she replied. "Why don't you go take a hot shower and call it an early night."

He nodded his head. "Yeah, okay." "Hey, mom?" Tony walked in the room but stopped when he saw Antonio. "Never mind." He turned and walked back out. "Tony! Come back for a second. Please," Antonio called after him. "What?" Tony asked, from the doorway. "I'm sorry about earlier." Antonio took a deep breath. "I didn't mean to be such a hard ass." Tony looked surprised but played it cool. "Yeah, okay." "Tony," Vivian said, a warning in that one word. "It's fine, Dad. Sorry I let it go too long." To Vivian, he said, "I'm staying after school tomorrow." "Oh? You have practice?" "No, we have tomorrow off. Coach won't be there. I'm going to help my English teacher with something." "Shouldn't she be helping you?" Vivian asked. "She's a club sponsor and she taught the twins a few years ago. Her group wants to do a fundraiser for Project Blue Light in Mr. Gary's honor. She asked me if I wanted to help." "What kind of fundraiser?" Antonio asked. "Not sure yet. That's what tomorrow's meeting is about. I want to check it out." Vivian looked at Antonio then at Tony. "Sounds good to me. Let me know if I can do anything to

help." "I will. Thanks. Night, Mom. Dad." He disappeared, leaving them alone once more. "Everyone seems to be feeling Gary's death." Vivian stood up and went back to her desk. "I'm going to private message Eleanor and let her know. I'll be up by the time you finish in the shower." Antonio nodded as he stood up. "I'm sorry, Viv. I really am." "I know you are. What's that thing your dad always said?" "It’s not the mistakes a man makes but what he does after that are the measure of the man." She gave half a smile, almost hearing her father in law’s voice in her head as Antonio spoke. "That's so true too." "I'm a lucky man." He walked from the room and Vivian listened as he clomped slowly up the steps, praying the alcohol hadn't affected him so much that he lost his balance. Pulling up her favorite social media website, she created a chat group and sent a message to Eleanor and Marietta about the upcoming fundraising event. What she really wanted to talk about was Antonio contemplating suicide but she didn't know how to even voice the words. Eleanor: I remember Ms. Evans. The boys loved her. She is too kind to be doing that. Marietta: Do they need any sponsors or

chaperones or anything? Vivian: Tony is going to know more tomorrow after he attends the planning meeting. Marietta: Ricky brought home a flyer today. The department is selling memorial tee shirts with Gary's name, end of watch, and badge number on them. Eleanor: I hope no one thinks we expect all of this. Marietta: Hush! You know the guys and gals like to have the shirts. It's their way of paying their respects and reminding the world that their brother mattered. Eleanor: Gary always paid twice as much for the shirts when he bought them. He said we had to take care of our own. Vivian: Well, now its everyone's turn to take care of you. I gotta tell you girls something but it has to stay between us. Eleanor: Of course. Always. Marietta: What she said. Vivian: Antonio and Tony got into tonight over the trash not being taken out. Antonio took off on a "run" and came home falling down drunk. Well, escorted in cuffs, actually. Marietta: What? He needs to stop drinking! Vivian: Yeah, we talked about that. But that's not what worried me. He told me had a voice in his head telling him how easy it would be for him to

just run in front of a car or truck. Eleanor: No! You tell him I said absolutely not! Vivian: I got him to agree to see our doctor tomorrow. A loud, solid crash sounded from upstairs. Vivian: I gotta go. Something just happened. Jumping up from her chair she ran out of the room and took the steps two at a time. She met Tony on the landing. "What was that?" he asked as he followed her to her room. "I don't know." She pushed the door open. "Antonio! Are you okay?" she called out as she crossed the room. The water still ran in the shower and some rock music sounded through the door. He must have turned something on his phone when he went in the bathroom. Vivian grasped the doorknob but it didn't budge. She pounded the door with both fists yelling his name but there was no reply. "Tony! Grab me a bobby pin off my nightstand. You know those little things I use in my hair." He already had one in his hand before she finished explaining. "Here, Mom." Vivian took the pin and opened it to a ninetydegree angle before shoving one end into the lock on the door knob. She heard a click and shoved the door open so hard it slammed against the vanity. "Antonio!"

A cloud of steam billowed from the room. The shower curtain lay in a heap on the side of the tub and water ran off of it on to the floor. Antonio was slumped against the drain, blood running from his head and turning the water pink. "Tony! Call an ambulance!" She looked up to see her son backing from the room with his cell phone already to his ear. Vivian shut off the water but resisted the urge to pull Antonio from the tub. She had no idea what kind of injury he had. She did check for a pulse, her fingers feeling icy cold against the hot skin of his neck. When she felt the slight pressure against her finger tips, she let out the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "Is he dead?" Tony asked from the doorway. Vivian shook her head. "No. Did you call 9-11?" Tony nodded. "Yeah. I'm going downstairs to watch for them. Unless you need me to help get Dad out of the tub?" "No," Vivian said. "I'm not moving him. I have no idea what happened and I don't want to make anything worse." She struggled to keep her voice calm and her words even so as not to scare Tony but her heart pounded against her sternum with such force, Vivian wanted to vomit. "Okay." Tony ran off toward the front door and Vivian sat and waited.

By the time she heard EMT's coming up the stairs, Antonio had begun to move slightly. He let out a groan as he rolled sideways. "What the hell happened?" "You tell me," Vivian said, grabbing a towel and laying it over his naked man parts. "One minute I was singing along with Journey and the next I woke up freezing my balls off and licking the tub drain." "Small town girl, living in a lonely world?" Vivian looked up to see a medic standing in the doorway. "Always. Doesn't matter who you are, right?" Antonio tried to sit up but got stuck. "Whoa, man. Stay put. We'll get you out of there." "I'm fine." Antonio shifted and slipped against the wet surface, whacking the back of his head on the side of the tub. "Sit still, Antonio Robert." Vivian glared at him. "Dude, she pulled out the middle name. You in trouble now." A second medic, considerably younger than the first, stepped into the room. Antonio grumbled something only she could hear. "Great. I get the rookie. I'll be dead in ten minutes." "Antonio, hush," Vivian replied, just as quietly. "Come on, man. Let's see if we can get you up from there." The first medic moved in next to

Vivian. She went and sat on top of the toilet seat to give them room to work. It took both medics and a lot of grunting to get Antonio out of the tub. They walked him to the bed and sat him on the end of it. Antonio immediately grabbed the extra throw blanket she used at night and covered his lap. "Eeww, now I'm gonna have to wash that." Vivian made a face as she walked out of the bathroom. "It's not like you've never touched my junk before." Both of the medics had a good laugh over that one. Vivian glared at her husband but didn't like what she saw. Antonio's usually ruddy skin was pale and his hand shook a little when one of the medics lifted his arm to put on the blood pressure cuff. A stream of blood ran from his brow right into his eye. The other medic dabbed at it with a gauze pad. "You're gonna need some stitches here. You hit your head on the faucet?" Antonio shrugged. "I have no idea. I think I slipped when I reached down for the bar of soap I'd dropped." "Can you look up at this light please?" The medic held a white pen light up, moving it slowly back and forth. "I think you might have a bit of a concussion

too. Have you been drinking, sir?" "I had a couple beers. So what?" Antonio said. "A concussion might not mix well with that. I think we need to take you in. A doctor needs to evaluate you." "I'm fine!" Antonio jumped to his feet. The blanket fell to the floor and he fell to the bed. "Feeling a little woozy, are ya?" The younger of the two medics asked. "Let them take you," Vivian said. "I'd feel better if you got checked out." "I just want to go to bed." "Now that's the problem, sir," the first medic said. "Sleep might not be your friend at the moment." Antonio let out a long, frustrated sounding sigh. "Fine. But can I put on some damn clothes first? I don't need the entire city getting a look at me in my birthday suit." The older medic covered his eyes and waved at Antonio's crotch. "Yeah. Please do. I might never eat franks and beans again after tonight." Vivian laughed, digging through drawers for a pair of sweats, boxer briefs and a tee shirt. "Here." She held out the clothes but both medics stepped aside. "He's all yours, ma'am. We’re gonna stow our gear and get the stretcher." "No!" Antonio said. "I'll walk to the ambulance.

I don't need the neighbors talking." "Honey, they probably already are." He exhaled. "Whatever. Let’s just do this then." She helped him get dressed, and with the assistance of the medics and Tony, they got him down the stairs and out to the waiting truck. "I'll follow behind in the car," Vivian said as they closed the doors to the back of the ambulance. Two hours later, she sat in a hard, plastic chair while a nurse hooked up an i.v. to her husband. "I still don't understand why I have to stay the night." Antonio glared at the nurse. "Doctor's orders," she replied, cheerfully, finishing her business and practically skipping from the room. "You don't have to give everyone a hard time, do you?" Vivian asked, reaching for Antonio's hand. He waved his free hand, indicating the small room. "This whole thing is stupid. There is nothing wrong with me." "Right. Besides four stitches and a concussion, you're just dandy." "I'm only staying here one night." Vivian shrugged. "Sure. As long as the doctor agrees." Her phone chimed an incoming text from Tony. How's Dad? Vivian: Looks like he is staying the night. You okay?

Tony: I'm fine. You don't have to rush. Vivian: I will be home in an hour or two, once I'm sure your father won't harass everyone who comes in here. Tony: Okay. I'm glad he's all right. I was scared. Vivian: Me too, baby. Me too. She tucked her phone back in her purse. "That was Tony. He was just checking on you. Your little accident scared him." "Tell him I'm sorry." He picked at a thread on the scratchy hospital blanket. "I just keep fucking everything up." She squeezed his hand. "This too shall pass." "You go on home and get some sleep. I don't like Tony being home alone all night." "You sure you don't want me to stay a little longer? It's only nine o'clock." "Nah. The meds they gave me downstairs are making me sleepy." He yawned. "I'll be asleep by the time you get to the car." Vivian leaned down and kissed his cheek. "Don't you ever scare me like that again, you hear?" He reached up and cupped her cheek. "I love you, Viv. Don't ever give up on me, okay?" Her eyes burned a little from unshed tears. "I will always have your six, baby. You know that." Antonio nodded. "I am a lucky man. The

luckiest." Vivian kissed him once more than picked up her purse and left, feeling like she'd left a piece of her heart in that bed. On the way home, her phone rang. Grabbing it, she answered without looking at the call screen, fully expecting it to be Tony checking in. "Hello?" "Hey, is everything okay?" "Eleanor! I'm so sorry. I completely forgot to text you and Mari. Antonio slipped in the shower and whacked his head pretty good." "Oh no! Is he all right?" Vivian turned down the road that led to their house, grateful to almost be home. "I just left the hospital. They are keeping him overnight for observation. The fall gave him a concussion and four stitches to his eyebrow." "The hospital! Do you need anything?" She could hear the panic in Eleanor's voice. "No. He's fine. I'm fine. They just want to watch him because of the concussion. He'd had alcohol before he slipped so there is some extra concern." "He's been drinking more than usual, hasn't he?" Vivian sighed. "Yes. And I don't know what to do about it. I'm hoping this trip to the hospital makes him see what I've been trying to tell him."

"It might be what he needs to show him he needs to stop." Vivian pulled in to the driveway. Tony had turned the porch light on for her, thankfully. Their yard always felt so dark at night with the nearest street lights two houses away on either side. "I hope so. I'm going to go inside now and crawl into bed. I'm exhausted. I'll text Mari real quick before I pass out." "I'll do it. You go to bed. I don't sleep much these days so it will give me something to do." "You know you can come here and stay if you want to. I can't imagine being alone all the time." Eleanor let out a heavy breath. "It's the hardest thing I've ever done aside from saying good bye to my husband on his death bed. But, it's my new normal, and I've got to figure out how to live with it. You go on inside now. I'll talk to you tomorrow." "Okay. Thanks for checking in. I'm sorry I forgot to call you." "Good night, Vivian." The call disconnected and Vivian tucked the phone back into her purse before leaving her car. The sidewalk was slick so she moved slow. After what felt like forever, she finally made it to the door and went inside. "Mom? That you?" Tony called from his bedroom. "Yeah."

"Dad doing okay?" He appeared at the top of the steps, concern etched in tiny lines on his young face. "He'll be fine. Just being his usual pain in the butt self, hassling the nurses and such." Tony walked halfway down the stairs and sat on one of the steps. "It's my fault, isn't it?" "What?" Vivian looked up from the shoe she was untying. "No. Why would you think that?" "Because I picked the fight over the trash. If I'd just done it after school like I was supposed to, none of this would have happened." "Listen to me, son. This was your father's doing, not yours. That fiery Italian temper is all his." "I know. It's just, I left the trash full on purpose because I knew it would get him upset. I'm just so mad at him lately. I don't know what to do. I don't want to be angry at him but I can't seem to help it. After the fight, the guys on the team—" Vivian knelt on the step in front of Tony and lifted his chin with her fingers so he'd have to make eye contact. "They don't know anything about our life. You have no reason to listen to any of them. Your father is a good man going through a hard time. We love him in good times and in bad, right?" Tony nodded. "Yeah." She leaned in and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "You're a good boy, Tony. The very best. You make us both proud, you know that, right?"

He nodded again. "Yeah." Tony used the rails to pull himself up. "I've got some homework to finish." "I'm going to bed. It's been one heck of a long day." "Good night, Mom." He walked up the stairs. "Good night, baby. Love you." "Love you too," he called back from somewhere in the upstairs hallway. Vivian checked all the door locks then climbed the stairs to her bedroom. The blanket on the bed where he'd tossed it made her smile. That man would be the death of her before it was all done and over.



The sound of the doorbell echoed through the empty house making her drop the pan she was washing into the sink. It was after seven pm and she wasn't expecting anyone. The last time she'd got an unexpected visitor— Eleanor grabbed her phone on the way to the door, in case she needed to call for help. The bell rang again, followed by rapid knocking. She contemplated just dialing 9-1-1 but took her chances by looking through the glass next to the door instead. "Eleanor! Come on, girl! Let us in, it's freezing out here!" Vivian's muffled voice carried through the door.

Eleanor turned the knob and yanked the door open. "You scared me! I was about to call the cops." Vivian and Marietta rushed past her, each one carrying bags and stomping their feet against the tile. "Hey, that's snow. When did it snow?" Eleanor pulled the door open again and looked outside. Tiny white crystals floated through the air, highlighted by the dark sky above. "When was the last time you left this house?" Vivian asked. Eleanor shrugged. "When we went shopping the other night, I guess." "It's worse than I thought." Marietta set her bags down and took off her winter coat. "What's all that stuff?" Eleanor pointed to the bags Marietta had put down. "Supplies." Marietta picked them up and walked toward the kitchen. "What is she up to?" Eleanor asked Vivian. Vivian wrapped an arm around her shoulders and steered her toward the kitchen. "We knew we could never convince you to go out so we brought the fun to you." "What kind of fun?" Eleanor eyed her friend suspiciously. "We're having a junk food party!" Marietta had dumped her bags out on the counter. Chips, various

types of chocolates, ice cream with a variety of toppings, and chocolate chip cookies were all spread out. "Junk food party?" Eleanor asked. "You said you aren't sleeping at night so Mari and I decided to come over and keep you company. I brought wine and nacho dip." Vivian set her bag on the counter top. "Oh, and some Bailey's Irish Cream to make special Mommy milkshakes." "Mommy milkshakes? It's like ten degrees outside." Eleanor rubbed her hands up and down her arms for emphasis. "Oh, don't worry. These will warm you from the inside." "You wouldn't rather be home with Antonio?" Eleanor asked. Vivian held up her hands in surrender. "I need a break. Just to regroup. Between his nightmares, the drinking, and the hospital stay, I have no idea how to help him." Eleanor picked up the nacho dip and bag of chips and took it to the table. Grabbing some plates, she went and sat down. "I wish there were something I could do or say. I know it's because of Gary. Unfortunately, I'm pretty useless these days myself. I just ramble around this big, empty house where everything reminds me of the life I used to have, feeling sorry for myself." Marietta opened the cookies and sat down with

her. "Have you considered moving?" Eleanor shook her head. "This is the only home Jameson and Jackson have ever known. How do I take that away from them now? They've already lost so much." Vivian pulled the blender out of the cabinet underneath the island and started scooping ice cream into it. "Maybe they'd be okay with it? I mean, if it makes you sad, maybe it makes them sad too." Eleanor swirled a chip around in the dip. "Maybe." Marietta patted her arm. "There's no need to decide tonight. Tonight, we eat, drink, and act like we just don't care about anything." Vivian finished shoving things into the blender and hit the switch. "Oh crap!" Ice cream and milk and frozen fruit shot straight into the air, landing on her head and coating the ceiling in a fruity, chocolately mist. She jabbed at the buttons over and over but the blender wouldn’t turn off. Finally, she just yanked at the cord, pulling it out of the outlet. "Uh, Viv? Did you maybe forget something?" Marietta asked, her body shaking with laughter. "Scooping the ice cream off the ceiling makes the shake smoother," Vivian snapped. "I saw it on T.V." Eleanor looked at her two friends, the mess on

the counter, and the chocolate ice cream dotting the ceiling and lost it. She laughed so hard her stomach ached and her face hurt. Marietta joined her. Vivian shot them both the evil eye, her hands on her hips and a scowl on her lips. "Oh, come on, Viv. It's freaking funny and you know it!" Marietta said, between gasps for air. "Go ahead, have your fun at my expense. There's nothing funny—" A large blob of ice cream let go of the ceiling and landed on Vivian's head. Little chocolate rivers ran through her bangs and down the sides of her temples. A third stream followed the contours of her nose, running to the end and dripping onto the front of her shirt. Eleanor laughed so hard she slipped off her chair. She lay there on the floor, tears running from her eyes as the laughter just kept coming. "Even you have to know that's funny," Marietta said, as round two overtook her as well. Vivian stuck out her tongue and caught some of the ice cream as it dripped from the end of her nose. "Mmm…tasty." This made Eleanor laugh even harder. "Oh yeah? Let me try." Marietta reached up and swiped at one of the chocolate streaks on Vivian's face with her index finger. Licking it off she moaned exaggeratedly. "Oh, that is good." Marietta snort-laughed, setting them all off this

time. Vivian grabbed for a towel and started wiping at her hair and face, smearing the now sticky substance all over herself. Eleanor lay curled up in a ball on the floor, laugh-crying and Marietta laughed harder every time she looked from her to Vivian and back. Eventually, they all calmed down enough to breath normally. Eleanor rolled on to her back and looked up at her ceiling. "It looks kind of rustic farmhouse. Think anyone will know it's chocolate ice cream or should I actually attempt to clean it?" Marietta lowered herself to the floor and stretched out on her back next to Eleanor, pointing at a cluster of splatter marks. "I don't know. It kinda looks like the big dipper to me. And over there is the little dipper." Vivian tipped her head back and looked up. "No. I think it looks like blood spatter. Arterial. See the shape?" "Girl, you been reading too many crime novels." Marietta pointed up again. "You don't see that? The big dipper, I tell you." "You girls are too much. This is the best I've felt since the night Gary died." "Even though you might have to have your ceiling painted?" Vivian asked. Eleanor shrugged, from her position still on the floor. "Eh, that's what I have sons for. And those

sons will be home in a few days for winter break." "It will keep them out of trouble for a couple days." Marietta sat up. Eleanor pulled herself up into a sitting position as well, leaning against the back of the kitchen island. "Thank you for being the best friends a girl could ever have. Not everyone would go to such great lengths to cheer me up." Vivian's face turned bright red. "It was an accident!" "Sure it was," Marietta said. Vivian leaned over the counter and looked down at Eleanor. "So, El, I was wondering—" "You can use my bathroom. There's tee shirts and leggings in my dresser." "Thanks, girl." Vivian left the kitchen and headed up the stairs. Eleanor turned to Marietta. "She's not telling me everything, is she?" "About what?" "Antonio. What's really going on with him." Marietta sighed. "Ricky says he's losing it. Got into a fight at Tony's ball game, and then there was the whole bar fight and falling in the shower thing. Did she tell you about the dream he had where he nearly tried to kill her?" "What? Are you serious? No, she didn't tell me about that." "Yeah." Marietta stood up and grabbed a towel

to start wiping up the mess. "She woke up with him kneeling on her chest. Vivian rolled and threw him to the floor but he had no idea what had had happened when he woke up." Eleanor grabbed the edge of the counter and used it to pull herself up off the floor. "Poor Vivian. Poor Antonio. He needs help." "You know how they are. He doesn't want to go because he doesn't want anyone to know he's struggling. Damn men and their ridiculous egos." Eleanor pulled a towel from a drawer and wet it then started wiping up the mess with Marietta. "How's Ricky doing with everything?" "About how you'd expect. Working a lot. Bottling it all up. The usual." Eleanor rinsed her towel in the sink and watched as the water rinsed the brown fluid away. "I don't know which is worse, pretending it never happened or accepting that it did." Marietta wrapped an arm around her shoulders and squeezed. "I don't think there is a right answer to that question." Eleanor dropped her towel in the sink, turned around and leaned against the counter. "Christmas is in a week. I haven't even put up a tree. I've barely bought gifts for anyone but the twins. Nothing feels right without Gary." Marietta turned and leaned against the counter as well. "Mama said the whole first year is the

hardest because of all firsts. Just get through this holiday season as best as you can. No one expects you to be Susie Homemaker right now. The boys will understand." "I don't want anything else to be different for them." "That's the thing, though, El. It is different now and they have to work through that, same as you." Eleanor rubbed her hands over her face. "I'm just so angry all the time now. I want to know why Gary? Why did this happen to our family? He was a good, honest cop. We are good people. We do all the right things. I just want to know why." Marietta leaned over and rested her head on Eleanor's shoulder. "I wish I had those answers for you. I'd give anything to be able to put your heart at ease." "I don’t think my heart will ever feel anything but sadness ever again." "I know it feels that way now—" "He was part of me. And now it feels like I've lost a limb. A piece of my very soul is gone." Eleanor wiped at her eyes. "And, now I'm crying again." Eleanor crossed the room to the refrigerator. She opened the door and grabbed a half full bottle of wine. Popping out the cork, she brought the bottle to her lips and drank. The cold liquid burned as it passed through her esophagus, matching the

permanent ache in her chest. When the bottle was empty, she set it down on the counter. "Feel better?" Marietta asked, laughing. "Not really, but give it a minute." Marietta motioned to the table and chairs. "Why don't you sit over there and pig out on junk food while I finish cleaning up this mess. If Vivian ever gets back down here, we can watch a movie or something." Eleanor laughed a little. "She will be awhile. Gary had that double shower head arrangement installed when we redid the bathroom. It's life altering." "Ha. Now I know this whole thing was on purpose then." "Thanks for coming over tonight. I get so lonely here when the twins are gone." "My house is always open to you. Ricky works so much lately, I'm alone most nights anyway." Eleanor shrugged. "Like I said, I really have to learn to do this on my own. It would be a whole lot easier if I'd had some say in it or at least a little warning, but I didn't so, I just keep muddling along. Gary worked nights. I should be used to it anyway." She held up a chocolate chip cookie. "Thank God for wine and cookies to help me though it." Vivian appeared in the doorway, her hair wrapped in a pink towel. "Holy crap, Eleanor. Why

aren't you in that shower all the time? If I lived here, I'd never leave." Eleanor looked at Marietta. "Told you it was life altering." "Well, maybe I need to try it out sometime." Vivian walked over and sat down. "Antonio doesn't know it yet, but I'm getting one of those in our house. Every inch of my body feels like it had a massage. So, what'd I miss?" Marietta pointed to the empty wine bottle. "Eleanor got thirsty." "Damn, girl. I wasn't gone that long." Vivian popped a chip covered in dip into her mouth. "It was half empty when I started." "You girls want to watch a movie?" Marietta asked. "I'm about done cleaning up Vivian's milkshake snafu over here." "Sure," Eleanor said, yawning. "But I might not make it through the whole thing." "Lady, I hope it puts you to sleep," Vivian said. "You look like you haven't slept a night in a year." "Gee, thanks." Eleanor sniffed. Vivian's expression turned sad. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it to hurt your feelings. I'm just worried about you." "We are all worried about each other," Marietta said. "So, let's go watch some stupid comedy flick." Two hours later, Marietta and Vivian left and Eleanor climbed the stairs to her bedroom. The

king-sized bed looked so large and cold, she almost grabbed her pillow and went back downstairs to the couch. The only reason she didn't was because the sheets still held a tiny bit of Gary's familiar scent and she wanted that comfort for as long as possible before it faded away forever. Changing into one of Gary's tee shirts that she saved from the big clean out, Eleanor climbed into bed and hugged his pillow to her chest. "I miss you so much," she whispered into the darkness. She closed her eyes and let the tears fall silently as she breathed deep, wrapping herself in the last remaining bit she had of her husband.



"Antonio! You got mail! It looks official!" Vivian kicked the front door shut behind her, balancing the stack of mail along with the grocery bags she carried. "Just leave it on the table," Antonio called back from the family room. Vivian ignored him, carrying the letter to where he sat and handing it to him. She perched on the arm of his chair, waiting to see what it said. He scowled at her. "I said to leave it. I don't want to look at it." "Fine. Then I'll open it." She grabbed at the envelope but Antonio was quicker, holding it out of her reach.

He tore open the envelope and read the piece of paper inside. "Apparently, I was called up for jury duty but given the active case I was recently involved in, they've decided to excuse me from it to avoid a conflict of interest. What the hell is that supposed to mean? I'm not a defendant." "The shooting has been big news around here. Your name has been in every paper and on every news channel. Maybe they are just being nice and giving you a break?" "Maybe." He tossed the paper to the floor. "Fuck them. I hate jury duty anyway. Tony got a game tonight?" Antonio asked, flipping through television channels with the remote and changing the subject. She let him. They'd had enough disagreements lately. This point wasn't worth arguing. "I'm not sure. I'll text him. Hold on." Vivian took out her phone and typed a message to Tony. Do you have a game tonight? A reply came almost instantly. 6:30 Home. "He's got a home game at six thirty. Do you want to go?" Vivian asked. Antonio frowned "I don't know. Does he even want me there?" "I think he does. Just don't start any fights tonight." "Hey!" Antonio shot her an angry look. "That wasn't my fault. That loud mouthed bully should

have minded his own business." Vivian slid down to Antonio's lap and leaned her head against his chest. "Maybe so. But you didn't have to react the way that you did either." She felt him shrug. "I suppose." He leaned in and kissed the top of her head. "I've been a real asshole lately, haven't I?" "That's a strong word, but I'd say it fits." Vivian winked at him. Antonio raised an eyebrow but didn't argue. "I called the counselor today." She sat back and looked at him. "I know how hard that was for you." "It was even harder to get in the car and drive there." "You already had an appointment today?" He nodded. "Yeah. As soon as I told them who I was and why I called, they fit me in right away. I swear they were waiting for me. It wasn't nearly as bad as I expected." Vivian planted a kiss on his lips. "I'm so proud of you." "I know it didn't fix everything yet but she helped me understand some of the things I am feeling and to recognize what an ass I've been." "I imagine it will take time to work through all of it but I'm so proud of you for taking that first step." "Beth—that's the counselor's name—says it will

take a while. Especially the guilt." Vivian leaned her head on his shoulder. "I've got your back the whole way." "I know you do, babe, and I don't have the words to tell you how much I appreciate you." They front door opened and then it slammed shut. "Mom! You home?" "In the family room!" she called back. Tony appeared in the doorway. "Oh, hey Dad. Sorry. Didn't mean to interrupt." Vivian stood up and straightened her clothes. "We were just talking. I'm going to go get dinner started. I think your dad wanted to talk to you for a minute." She walked toward the kitchen but stopped in the hallway just out of sight of her son and husband so she could listen. Antonio took a deep breath and exhaled loudly. He did that when he was nervous and wanted to buy himself time to get his thoughts together. It had been his pattern since as long as Vivian had known him. "Dad, I got homework to do before my game." "Just give me a minute," Antonio replied. "Okay." "I wanted to say I'm sorry. I know life around here has been hard for the last month or so but I wanted you to know that I'm working on it. The drinking—everything. I'm just sorry. I can't promise

you I'm going to be perfect but I called someone today and I'm—working through things. Being human means I don't always have all the answers, you know? Sometimes I have to have a little help." "I don't expect you to be perfect. I just want you to be my dad." "I know, son. I'm sorry about the fight at your game. I let my temper get the best of me but I'm working on that too." The two of them were quiet for so long, Vivian started to worry. Antonio was still sensitive and he'd totally lose it on Tony if he thought Tony didn't take him seriously. "I'm so glad to hear that, Dad," Tony finally said. "It has been hard. Really hard. Even worse at school." "I really am sorry about the fight at your game. It won't ever happen again." "I appreciate that. Unfortunately, there's more to it than that. Kids are saying things about you. About Mr. Gary." "They do know that we are the good guys, right? That the bad guy is the one that pulled the trigger and killed my best friend?" "I don't know. All I hear is cops suck and cops act first and think second. I have had people tell me Mr. Gary deserved what he got and that all cops deserve to be put down like dogs. It's been real bad, Dad."

"Why didn't you tell me? I would have done something about it." Tony let out a long breath. "Because you can't beat up everyone you disagree with." "Why not?" Antonio asked, laughing. "I'm right. They are wrong." "Because, that's not how it works. Besides, I can handle it myself. I don't care what anyone thinks. My father is a hero." She peeked around the corner and saw them hugging each other. With a smile, Vivian turned and headed to the kitchen to make dinner. They were one step closer to peace in their home once more. Two hours later they sat in the stands, waiting for the game to start. "Looks like the coach is talking to some college scouts," Antonio said. "Tony said he thought there might be some here again tonight." Antonio shook his head. "All the games I've missed over the years—I had no idea how good he'd gotten until that last game." Vivian lightly squeezed his hand. "We've got a real good kid. Did you know his teacher asked him to help her organize the fundraiser in Gary's name for a local charity?" Antonio looked surprised. "From that meeting he went to? Is he going to do it?" She nodded. "He met with her again last week.

They are going to do a bunch of things at school to raise money and then present it to the charity of Eleanor's choice. He asked me to take him to her house after school tomorrow so he can tell her all about it. Oh, and I believe they are setting up a scholarship in his name too." "You're right, he is a really good kid." The buzzer sounded and the game started. Tony got possession of the ball quickly, scoring within a minute or two of the game. That set the tone for the rest of the team. Basket after basket, the ball never seemed to leave his team's control. By the time the game ended, Vivian was hoarse from cheering and yelling Tony's name. "That's my son!" Antonio called when the announcer said Tony's name. "He played so well," the woman behind them said. "I bet every recruiter in the state is going to be contacting him now." "Thank you," Vivian replied. "We are very proud of him." Both teams left the floor and headed to their locker rooms. Antonio motioned toward the exit. "Come on, let's wait in the hall for him." "No need. He's going out for pizza with the rest of the team. One of the guys is giving him a ride." Vivian put on her coat and buttoned it all the way up. "Oh." Antonio looked a little disappointed.

"Well, I'm hungry too. Want to stop and grab something on the way home?" "Sure. What're you thinking?" Vivian followed Antonio out of the bleachers and across the gym floor. "I could eat a burger. Or some wings." Antonio said. "Wings sound good." Tony was standing in the hallway when they exited the gym. "Hey, guys! Some game, huh?" Vivian hugged him and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "You were amazing!" "Great game, son. Your mom's right, you were amazing." "Thanks, Dad. I've gotta run. Coach has someone he wants me to meet. Don't forget I'm going out with the guys." Vivian gave him another hug. "Just be home by eleven." "I will!" He jogged off toward where his coach stood, talking to another man. Antonio led her outside through a side door. The night air was ridiculously cold. "I really thought we would escape this sort of winter living so close to the beach. If anything, it seems to amp up the freezing feeling." Antonio put an arm around her and pulled her in close, whispering against her ear. "I can think of a way to warm you up."

Even in the chill, she could feel the heat build in her face. "Maybe after those chicken wings you promised me." Antonio laughed. "Right. Foreplay. Women like that stuff." Vivian swatted at his arm. "It's called romance." "Hey, everyone, my wife thinks chicken wings are romantic!" A couple people around them gave Antonio strange looks but one guy, walking a few feet in front of them turned and yelled to them, "So does mine! She's a keeper!" "You got that right!" Antonio yelled back. It felt so good to have her husband acting like himself again that instead of yelling at him for being ridiculous, she laughed. "I also want cheese fries, just so you know. Back pay on the romance." Antonio laughed as well and pressed a kiss to the top of her head. "You got it babe." They drove to their favorite restaurant, found a table in the corner, and ordered. While they waited, Antonio watched a basketball game on the big screen behind the bar and Vivian made a quick trip to the ladies’ room. When she returned, Eleanor was standing by their table. "Hey, girl." Vivian wrapped an arm around Eleanor and pulled her in for a hug. "What're you up to?" "I was just telling Antonio, the boys came home

tonight and they were starving and apparently I haven't grocery shopped in a really long time. So, burgers it is." "You all want to join us?" Vivian asked sliding in to her seat. Eleanor shook her head. "Oh, no. We don’t want to intrude on date night. The boys already grabbed a table over there." She pointed to a booth across the room. "I just wanted to say hi and see how Antonio was." Antonio had stayed quiet during the exchange, watching Eleanor. As she turned to walk away, he grabbed her hand. "Ellie? Can you wait a minute?" "Um, sure." He stood up and took her hand leading her away from the eating area. "I wanted to tell you—I mean, I never got a chance to say—" Eleanor touched his arm. "It's okay, you don't have to say anything." Antonio wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand and took another deep breath. "I was there when things went down and I didn't save Gary. I'm sorry—" he stuttered past a sob trying to break free. "I am so, so sorry I didn't stop that lunatic from shooting Gary. He was my best friend. I should have done—something." He watched as tears ran down Eleanor's face. "Oh, Antonio. It wasn't your fault. I will keep telling you that until you believe it."

He shifted his weight and exhaled. Tears escaped from the corners of his eyes. "Every time I close my eyes, I see the whole thing all over again. The shooter. That crazy look in his eyes as he turned away from me and fired at Gary. The sounds of the gun, the sirens, people yelling—it haunts me day and night." Emotion overcame him with sob after sob. Eleanor threw her arms around him, hugging him hard and crying right along with him. Vivian stood up, walked over to where they were and wrapped her arms around both of them. They stayed that way for a long moment, ignoring the sounds of the busy restaurant around them. Eleanor was the first to break up their hug. "He loved you like a brother, Antonio. I know you would have done anything for him. It just all happened so fast there really was nothing you could do. You have to know that." Vivian sat back down in her seat. Antonio closed his eyes and took a slow breath. He opened them and looked at Eleanor. "I'm trying really hard to believe that. I am. I just needed you to know how sorry I am and how much I loved Gary. To me, he was the brother I never had and I miss him so damn much." "Gary died doing what he loved. How many of us can ever be that lucky?" Antonio shook his head. "He never should have

been there." "What? He should have left his best friend and his partner to die in the street instead?" Antonio turned away. "Better me than him." "How can you say that?" Eleanor demanded. "It was a terrible tragedy but we can't change it. I believe that life happens the way it's supposed to and there is nothing we can do to change that grand master plan. You need to move forward and get back out on the streets. Gary would be super pissed if you don't." He nodded and laughed, halfheartedly. "Yeah, he would. But, I'm at the mercy of IA at the moment." "I heard today that they are going to clear you." This caught Vivian's attention. "You did?" Eleanor nodded. "Ran in to Connor, the rookie, at the supermarket. They let it slip at line-up that the investigation was nearly done. Someone will probably call you soon. Connor's still in a little trouble but they are going to work with him since he was still in training." Antonio shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans. "Just because they are almost done doesn't mean I'm in the clear." "From what is being said, you are. I'm sure of it. What could you have done?" Antonio scowled. "Shot the fucker when I had the chance."

"You were trained to try and diffuse the situation. I'm sure you would have if my sweetheart hadn't blown in there like John Wayne all lights and sirens and attitude." This made them all laugh a little. "Yeah. That sounds like Gary," Antonio said. Eleanor gave Antonio another hug. "You're a good man and you have great things left to do on this planet. Seize the second chance you've been given and save the world. Do it for Gary." Their server appeared with a tray full of food. "Who's ready to eat?" she asked, all smiles and oblivious to the serious exchange that had just occurred. Eleanor and Antonio stepped out of her way as she started setting food down. "I should get back to the boys. I'm sure they have ordered one of everything," Eleanor said. She laid a hand on Antonio's arm. "You take care of yourself, okay?" Eleanor walked away. The server finished setting out the food and left. Antonio sat down and Vivian reached across the table to grasp her husband's hands. "I'm so proud of you." "Emotions are exhausting. I'm starving now." "Then let's eat," Vivian said, grabbing a wing and dipping it in ranch dressing. "Did it help, talking to Eleanor?" "I think it did." Antonio bit into a wing. "Eat those cheese fries, lady. I'm Mr. Romance tonight."



"Good Morning," Marietta kissed Ricky on the cheek as she headed to the counter to start the coffee pot. Her husband sat at the breakfast bar, reading the paper. "I guess." "Want some coffee?" He didn't like the little single cup coffees she did so they still had a good, old fashioned pot on the counter right next to her specialty cups. Ricky grunted. "Yeah, okay. Thanks. I've got court today." "Anything interesting?" Marietta scooped some coffee into the filter and filled the pot with water. "Sean Temple's attorney is arguing a motion for

mental illness." Marietta pulled a couple mugs out of the cabinet and set them on the counter. "Which case is that?" Ricky dropped the newspaper and turned to look at her. "Seriously? He's the guy who shot Gary." She nearly dropped the container of creamer she'd just taken from the refrigerator. "Oh, Ricky, I'm sorry. I didn't know his name. Do you have to be there for that?" "Yes. Got a subpoena. But, I'd go anyway. All the guys are gonna be there." Marietta walked over to Ricky and wrapped her arms around him from behind, leaning her cheek against his back. "Do you want me to go with you?" He turned on the stool so he faced Marietta. He pulled her to his chest and buried his face in her neck. "I'm not sure I can be in the same courtroom with him and not want to kill him." She could feel a slight bit of dampness on her neck and knew he was trying hard not to cry. Ricky was taught tears equaled weakness and he never let her see him shed a single one. "You can want to but you won't. You're too good of a person to do that." Ricky sniffed, confirming her suspicions. "I'm not as confident as you are." "I can go if you want me to." He shook his head. "No, I think it's better you

don't. Who knows who will be there to support him and I'd rather they not know what my wife looks like." "You think they'd try something?" "Like I said, I don't know who backs him. They don't need to have that kind of power." She ran her fingers through his hair, making the longer than usual hairs stand on end, all in disarray. "Okay. Well, do you think you will be there all day? I can at least pack you a lunch." "Nah. If I'm there through lunchtime, I'll just grab a sandwich or something." She tried to step away but he pulled her back in. Marietta wrapped her arms around him and settled on his lap. "Are you okay, baby?" "I miss him, Mari." His body tremored slightly against hers and her shoulder got a little bit damper. "I know you do. He was your friend and your colleague. That feels like a huge hole missing in your life now." He hugged her a little tighter. "The hole is massive. I don't know how to get past it." "Eventually, you will. No one expects you to be some kind of super human. You never sleep, you rarely eat. I can't remember the last time you had a day off." "Maybe it has been awhile." "Before Gary died at least. Just because we don't have any children doesn't mean you can work

all of the hours." He shrugged. "I know. That's not what this is." "Then what is it?" Ricky sat back and looked at her. "I don't know any other way to deal, I guess. If I keep working, getting the bad guys, then it might fill that void eventually." Marietta pressed the tip of her finger to his lips. "You could try talking to your wife." "What would I say? My buddy is dead and it really fucking pisses me off." She smiled. "That's an excellent start." "Or that I am a failure as a human being." Her smile disappeared. "What is that supposed to mean?" Ricky shrugged, staring down at the table. "Ricky?" she prodded. "Let's see. I couldn't protect my best friend. I was the one who called for help in the first place. If it weren't for me, Gary would have been serving a warrant instead of getting shot." "That's not your fault. Gary would have responded no matter who called for help. It's who he was." She reached for his hand but he yanked it away. "I suppose it's not my fault that we can't make a baby too?" "It's not!" "I failed my best friend and I am failing you."

He leaned his head in his hands, running his fingers through his hair until it stood on end, wild and messy. "You haven't failed me. Some things just aren't meant to be. Me having a baby isn't meant to be." Ricky reached over and pulled her to him. She settled on his lap, her head against his shoulder. He pressed a kiss to the top of her hair. "I love you, Mari. You know that, right?" "Of course, I do." She kissed his cheek. "Why would you ask me that?" He shrugged. "I just don't feel like I say it first enough I guess. I'm gonna be better about it, I promise. No matter what the future holds, I don't want you to ever doubt that, okay?" Marietta nodded. "Okay." He held her tight for a long moment. Neither of them said anything, just felt the presence of the other. Finally, Marietta spoke. "Vivian invited us to dinner tomorrow night. A little early Christmas meal, I guess." "What day is tomorrow?" Ricky asked. "Friday," Marietta replied. The night shift always left Ricky unsure what day of the week it was. "Okay. I can do that. I'm supposed to be off tomorrow night." "Excellent. Keep it that way. I'll let Vivian

know. Now, let me get you that coffee so you can get on the road as soon as you are ready." She went to move from her perch on his lap when Ricky pulled her in real close and kissed her like he meant it. "Thanks, baby." She touched a finger to his lips and smiled. Marietta stood up and poured the hot coffee into a travel mug, adding a handful of ice cubes to make it drinkable faster. She handed it to Ricky. "Here you go." "Thanks, babe." He accepted the cup and headed to their bedroom to change. Marietta grabbed her phone and typed out a text to Vivian. What time tomorrow night? Ricky said yes. Vivian: 530? Marietta: Should be good. See you then. "Okay, I'm out of here." Ricky reappeared in the kitchen dressed in a suit with his badge on a chain around his neck. He looked apprehensive, which worried her. She crossed the room and stood up on tip toe to give him a kiss. The gun on his hip rubbed against her. "Oh, officer, is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?" Ricky grinned, the apprehensive look gone. "Maybe a little bit of both, baby. Play your cards right and I'll show you my gun a little later." She walked her fingers up his chest, stopping to

tap his badge. "I sure do love a uniformed man." Ricky wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her in close. "I sure do love you," he murmured against her ear before giving her a long kiss goodbye. "I'll text you when it's over and let you know what happens." "I'll keep my fingers crossed." Marietta held up her hands as proof. He nodded and left. She listened as the front door closed and then the sound of his car engine roared to life. It had been a long time since she'd seen Ricky so worried about anything. He'd always been a workaholic, but since Gary's death, he almost never had a day off. It would be good to spend some time with their friends for dinner. It would be Ricky's first night off since Thanksgiving. A couple hours later, as she folded a load of laundry, a text came in from Ricky. Ricky: Judge says he’s competent. We're going to trial. Marietta: Thank the Lord. When Ricky got home from work that night, he was in a much better frame of mind than when he'd left. Marietta was in the kitchen making dinner when she heard the front door open. "Hi, honey! Dinner will be ready in a few minutes!" "I'm going to go upstairs and change," Ricky

called back. Just as she put a piece of sirloin cooked in butter, garlic, and black pepper on a plate, Ricky appeared in the kitchen. He walked over and kissed her on the cheek. "That smells so good." "Good. Sit down and I'll bring you your plate." She pulled two baked potatoes from the oven, putting one on her plate and one on his. Scooping some green beans and corn on to each plate, she finished up with a piece of steak. Carrying the plates to the table, she set one down in front of her husband. "So, court went well then?" "The defense marched in a bunch of experts to testify that Temple was insane when he pulled the trigger." Ricky took a bite of steak and moaned. "This is delicious." "Did you eat today?" Marietta asked. "Not really. I got busy and forgot." He dug in to his meal, shoveling in bite after bite like a starving man. "You outdid yourself with this meal, baby. Thank you." She never understood how anyone forgot to eat. "You really need to make sure you eat more. You're losing too much weight." He shrugged. "I've had other things on my mind." "I know. I just worry about you." "Don't worry about me, okay? I'm fine. I

promise." He got up and went to the refrigerator, coming back with a bottle of water. He opened the bottle and took a long drink. "Everyone's been talking about Antonio. IA's gonna clear him." "That's great!" Vivian would be thrilled to know that. "Yeah. And the judge said that fucker was perfectly competent to stand trial. So, this was a good day." He relaxed against the back of his chair, pushing his now empty plate forward a little. "I'm stuffed." "Why don't you go watch television for a bit and relax? I'll clean up tonight." Their usual arrangement involved the two of them working together but Ricky just looked so exhausted. Like he'd been carrying the weight of world around with him for way too long. "If you don't mind, maybe I will. I want to see what the news has to say about court today." She picked up his plate and headed to the sink to rinse it. "Go. I'll be there in a couple of minutes. This won't take long." It wasn't like she had to cook for a big family. The thought passed through her mind quickly, reminding her of the most recent pregnancy miss she'd yet to tell Ricky about. Maybe she'd tell him after she took care of the dishes. She didn't like secrets between them, he'd just had so much on his mind lately there'd never been a good time.

True to her word, Marietta was done in the kitchen in less than ten minutes. She headed to the living room, her mind made up to tell Ricky about the latest negative pregnancy test in their quest to have a family. When she entered the room, her husband was stretched out on the couch, one arm hanging off the side and the remote control laying on the floor next to the couch. Her cat, Miss Kitty, was stretched on top of him, her paws hanging off the side of him in almost the same way. They both snored quietly. Marietta picked up the remote and shut off the television. Grabbing a blanket from the back of a recliner, she covered Ricky and Miss Kitty and left the room. Her conversation could wait. Ricky hadn't slept soundly in so long and he looked so peaceful for the first time in weeks. She went upstairs, changed into some pajamas, and burrowed in to her bed to read a book. The next thing she knew, the morning sun was shining and water ran in the shower in their bathroom. Marietta lay in bed listening to the sounds of her husband taking a shower. He sang a song she couldn't quite make out the words to. When the water turned off, he stepped in to the bedroom wearing nothing but a towel slung low on his hips. "Good morning, sweetheart." Ricky walked over, leaned down and kissed her. His wet hair sent little droplets of water running down her chest and

into her shirt. "You're in a good mood today," she said, pushing his wet hair back from his forehead. Ricky laughed and shook his head, spraying her in the face. Marietta laughed and tried to roll out of the way but Ricky jumped on top of her and pinned her to the bed. Leaning down, he kissed her neck then licked some of the water off of her chest, right above the neckline of her tee shirt. "I got some good sleep. I'm sorry I fell asleep before we could spend time together." He sat back so that his now wide open towel shared all its secrets with her. She swallowed against the need that suddenly hit her. It'd been too long since they'd had any real intimacy and now she couldn't. She ran her finger tips across the hard planes of his chest. "You were tired. You needed the sleep." His hands slipped under the covers and in to her shirt. "I think I promised to show you my gun yesterday and I think it's time I delivered." He reached for the waist band of her pants but she stopped him, her mood changing instantly. "No, Ricky. Not today. Maybe in a few days." "Oh?" A little understanding lit in his dark eyes. "Yeah." She closed her eyes against the tears that threatened. He rolled to the side and stretched out next to her, pulling her in to his arms. "I'm so sorry, baby. I really thought this would be our month."

She shrugged. "I'm not sure a baby is in our future. Apparently, I'm defective." Ricky hugged her, hard. "You are not defective. Maybe we just need to start considering other options. Adoption?" "I thought you weren't interested in that?" "We don't have to decide anything today. I've got you and that's all I really need. Everything else is just gravy." She smiled up at her husband. Worry etched tiny lines between his eyes. "I'm fine, really. I don't even get my hopes up any more. Aren't you going to be late?" Ricky worked an extra duty at a local grocery store on Friday mornings. It was a uniformed, overtime gig that he really enjoyed. Ricky looked at the clock next to the bed. "I've got a minute for my best girl." Marietta cuddled in next to him and closed her eyes, enjoying the warmth and familiar scent of her husband. "It's good to have you here, right now. I feel like our life has been on fast forward since Gary died." "I know what you mean. How's Eleanor these days?" Marietta sighed. "About how you'd expect. The twins got home yesterday for winter break so I'm sure that will help some, but they still have to get through their first Christmas without Gary." "That's going to be a hard one."

"It is." He gave her a tight hug. "I've got to go get ready but I'll see you tonight for dinner." She nodded. "Yeah. They expect us at five thirty so don't do anything that will make us late." Ricky laughed. "I'll try my hardest." He stood up and headed to another bedroom to change. Ricky had taken over one of the three empty bedrooms as his space for his gear and things. After Ricky left for his detail, Marietta went out to run a few errands. At the supermarket, the local papers had a front page story about Sean Temple's court appearance. She picked up a copy and read through the story. "Well, doesn't that just figure," she said to no one in particular. "Can you believe that guy?" a man beside her asked. "Trying to convince a judge he was insane when he killed that cop." "It's funny how after it happened this same news source blamed the officer that died for not being more sensitive to mental health and now that he has been declared sane, they have placed the blame where it should have been in the first place." He nodded. "I know. Whatever sells papers, I guess. I remember when journalism was an art. Now it's just a game. I can't imagine what his family has been through, what with the holidays and all, on top of it all."

"Actually, his wife is a very good friend of mine and it definitely hasn't been easy for her or their two boys. Sometimes I think the general population forgets that officers have families and friends that love them." The man's eyes were wet when he took her hand and squeezed it lightly. "Please tell his wife I said that no amount of thank yous for his service or I'm sorry for your losses will make up for his death, but there are plenty of people in this town that are grateful for his sacrifice and that of his brothers and sisters in blue." The man walked away before she could reply but his words touched her deeply. Pulling out her phone she called Eleanor and relayed the conversation, right there in the store. "Wow. He really said that?" Eleanor asked. "He did. And it was genuine. He had tears," Marietta replied. "You heard about court yesterday?" "No?" Eleanor said. "The shooter was found mentally competent. No insanity defense for him." "Thank God." Eleanor let out a long breath. "That makes me oddly peaceful." "I know. I felt the same way. Ricky too, I think. He slept the entire night and woke up acting like his old self again." "I'm so glad to hear that. I've got a doctor's appointment I need to get to so I better run. Thanks

for calling, Mari." "You're welcome. I'll talk to you soon." "Definitely." Eleanor ended the call and Marietta put her phone back in her bag before getting in line to pay for her items and head home. Ricky walked through the front door at ten minutes to five. As he walked up the steps he called to her, "I'm so sorry I'm so late. We had a late arrest at the store. I'll be ready in a few minutes." "Okay. I'll be right here when you're ready to go." Ten minutes later, he met her in the living room where Marietta was reading her book. "I'm here. You all set?" She put her book down. "Yup. Just let me grab my coat and purse." As they drove to their friends' house, Marietta relayed the story about the man at the supermarket. "He actually said that?" Ricky asked. "He did. And he meant it." "Good. Did you tell Eleanor?" She nodded. "I did. Called her right away." "I'm sure she appreciated it." Ricky pulled in to Vivian and Antonio's driveway. "I wonder how Antonio is doing with everything. I haven't had a chance to talk to him in a while, with everything going on." "Vivian says he's working through it. Getting a little help from a counselor finally."

Ricky turned the car off and they got out. "I'm glad to hear that." Vivian met them at the door. She gave Marietta a hug and then Ricky. "It's so good to see you both. Antonio's in the family room." She pointed toward the back of the house and Ricky walked in that direction. "How's he doing?" Vivian asked her as they headed toward the kitchen. "Pretty good now that the shooter isn't going to get off on an insanity defense. He's almost happy again. Does Antonio know?" "Yeah, we saw it on the news. He was pretty happy too." "Ricky says the word at the department is Antonio is going to be cleared by IA." Vivian pulled some wine glasses from a cabinet and grabbed a bottle of wine. "We ran in to Eleanor the other night when we went out for dinner. She told us the same thing. It was a huge weight off of both of us." "I can't wait for this to go to trial. I feel like it will be closure for the entire department." Marietta took a sip of the wine Vivian handed to her. "I agree. Dinner is ready. Why don't you go get the guys and I will put the food on the table?" Vivian opened the oven and the smell of something delicious filled the room. Marietta's stomach let out a loud growl in response. She

covered her abdomen with her hands and laughed. "Guess I'm hungrier than I thought. I'll get the men." As Marietta approached the family room, she heard Ricky's voice. "How you doin', man?" "Changes from day to day," Antonio answered. "I saw Eleanor the other day. Told her I was sorry and she tried to comfort me." "I always told Gary he had one hell of a woman to go home to," Ricky said. "Sure did." Antonio replied. "I'm sorry I haven't been much of a friend lately. I know there's been a lot going on at work and with me not being able to be there—well, that's been a real bitch to deal with on top of everything else." "It'll be good to have you back, man. With Gary gone, the old guy to baby cop balance is all out of whack." Antonio laughed. "I'm not an old guy." "Wait'll you see the new batch of trainees coming in from the academy next week. You'll be looking for your cream of wheat and your cane." "Hey, you two." Marietta stepped into the doorway. "Vivian says food's ready." "Good. I'm starved," Antonio said, standing up. He offered a hand to Ricky and pulled him up from the chair. "That crazy wife of mine would whack me with a dishtowel every time I tried to sneak in to the kitchen this afternoon. I tried to tell her I was

a growing boy and needed my food but she didn't buy it." "Sounds like my wife, right, baby?" Ricky said, blowing Marietta a kiss. "Just get in there." Marietta shooed the men toward the kitchen. She smiled to herself as she followed Antonio and Ricky to the table. They were both laughing and relaxed for the first time in so long. Despite the terrible that had happened, things almost felt normal again.



Eleanor re-read the piece of paper in her hand. One of the teachers at the high school had coordinated several fundraising events to collect funds to open a scholarship in Gary's name. They wanted her permission to name it after him officially. "What's wrong, Mom?" Jackson asked, as he walked past her to the pantry. "Your high school wants to start a scholarship in Dad's name." "Wow, really? That's kind of awesome." "I know. They want permission to name it after him." She waved the piece of paper. "You're going to say okay, aren't you?" "I think it's something your father would like,

don't you?" "What would Dad like?" Jameson asked, entering the room. "The school wants to make a scholarship and name it after Dad," Jackson said. "Oh, definitely," Jameson replied, grabbing some chips out of the bag Jackson held. "So, it's unanimous then." Eleanor pulled a pen from a nearby drawer and signed her name on the form. "Are we going to midnight mass?" Jackson asked. "I hadn't planned on it," Eleanor replied. "I have to run a couple of errands this afternoon. You boys good with ham for dinner tomorrow?" "Whatever," they both answered at the same time. Eleanor shook her head and laughed. Her boys would never not be hungry. "Okay then, I am heading out. I'll be back later." There were about to celebrate their very first Christmas without Gary. She was still pretty numb about his death. The only emotions she experienced anymore were anger or sadness with the emphasis heavily on anger lately. It just wasn't fair. She'd lost her best friend. Her boys lost their father. The world had lost an amazing man and life just went on like he'd never been there. She folded the letter and put it on the table. No awards or scholarships would

ever bring her husband back. Her phone rang, pulling her from her thoughts. Eleanor glanced at the screen before answering the call. "Hey, Vivian." "Did you get the letter?" She sounded so excited, Eleanor wondered if she'd missed something. "I did get a letter, yes." Eleanor picked up the letter again and unfolded it before folding it back up and setting it back on the table. "Was it from Tony's teacher? About the scholarship?" "Yes. How did you know?" "Tony's been working with her to get it going. He's so proud to make something good come out of Gary's death. There's going to be a ceremony in May when they make the first award. He's been asked to help present." "That's wonderful, Viv. You and Antonio must be very proud of him." She could hear the tremor in her voice and hoped Vivian didn't notice. "He did it for you. And Jameson and Jackson. He didn't want Gary's sacrifice to ever be forgotten." Vivian's voice broke a little. "I'm sorry if it's upsetting you." Apparently, she noticed. "It was very sweet of Tony to want to find a way to remember Gary. Please tell him thank you for me. And give him a

huge hug. I'm just having a bad day today. Some days are better than others. This is not one of those days." "I'd been wondering how you'd hold up this week. Do you need me to do anything for you? Grocery shop? Wrap gifts? Whatever you need, I'm your girl." Eleanor smiled, even though Vivian couldn't see her. "You're the best friend a girl could ever ask for and I appreciate you more than words could ever say, but this is just something I'm going to have to get through on my own." "I love you, girl. I'm here for you always, you know that, right?" "Of course, I do. I'll call you tomorrow, okay? I've got a couple things to take care of before the stores close for Christmas." "Okay. Call me if you need me." "You know I will." Eleanor disconnected the call and leaned back in her chair. She let her head drop back enough that she could study the ceiling. Wave after wave of emotion washed over her. She struggled to reign it all in. When she felt a little more in control of herself, she got up and grabbed her winter coat, a hat, gloves and a blanket from the living room. Grabbing the thermos of coffee she'd filled before getting the mail and the paper bag she'd stowed in the refrigerator the day before, she left the house.

The drive to the cemetery was uneventful. Traffic in that direction was lighter than normal and she had no problem finding a place to park close to place where she'd buried his ashes. Gary's final wishes were to be cremated and she'd honored those but she'd wanted a place where she and the boys could go to feel close to him so she'd purchased a small memorial plot and had his urn buried there. Today was one of those days. Grabbing her blanket and her lunch, she made the short walk from her car to Gary's grave. She'd brought along a bunch of fake poinsettias to put in the little stand the cemetery had placed in front of the plaque with his name on it. Setting the flowers in the black plastic tube, she spread out her blanket in front of the plaque and flowers and sat down on it. "Merry Christmas, Gary." She kissed her first two fingers and pressed them to the raised letters of his name. "I hope that you are having an easier time of it than we are. I really miss you. So much sometimes I feel like my heart might break into a million pieces from the weight of it." The wind picked up a little right then, running a shiver down her back. She pulled her hat from the pocket of her jacket and pulled it down over her ears. "I wish so much that you were here. We'd be

getting ready to order our traditional Christmas Eve Chinese Food and settling down to watch A Christmas Story for at least the hundredth time. Nothing feels right without you here." She opened the thermos and poured herself a mug of the hot coffee. Then she opened the bag and pulled out a small container of roast pork lo mein. "Since you can't be here for Christmas Eve dinner, I've brought it to you." Turning on her phone, she pulled up the movie she'd downloaded earlier. "Got our favorite movie too. We can watch it together." Eleanor set her phone down so that it leaned against Gary's marker. She pulled the blanket up over her shoulders and moved in a little more. "Traditions are meant to be kept. So, Merry Christmas, sweetheart." Eleanor scooped a forkful of the cold noodles up and ate them as the first scene of the movie played. She sat there for the entire movie, chatting with Gary as though he really sat there beside her. When little Ralphie got his Red Ryder BB gun and nearly shot his eye out, she could practically hear her husband laughing beside her. By the time the final credits rolled, she was near frozen through, but for the first time in weeks, she almost felt happy. Turning off the phone and putting it in her

pocket, she packed up her food container and thermos then folded up the blanket. Standing over Gary's final resting place, she tried hard to remember the sound of his voice and the feel of his arms wrapped around her. "I miss you so much. Some days I don't even know I how I get from beginning to end. Every night I wait for your call, one last goodnight and I love you. But that call never comes. I want you to know I am trying so hard, Gary. I want to make you proud. To be strong and stay strong but I'm failing miserably and I know it. I won't ask why anymore —there is no answer to that. But I will ask, why now? I need you so much and you left me. Left me to navigate all this grief on my own." A bird flew past her head and landed on a branch of a tree that sat close to Gary's plot. The bird looked at her intently, tilting its head to the side and looked as though it were studying her. They stood there for a long time, staring at each other, until the winter sun dropped below the trees and the bird flew off. "I'm going to go home now, Gary. Order take out and turn on a movie to watch with our boys. And even though you won't physically be there with us, you will always be in my heart. I love you, baby." She turned and walked away then, heading to her car. She didn't realize how cold she was until

she got in the car and turned it on. The shaking came on hard and lasted until the vents finally blew warm air on her. By the time she got home, Jackson and Jameson were waiting for her. "Where have you been?" Jackson asked. "We're starving!" Jameson said. "We are ordering Chinese for dinner, right?" Eleanor smiled and pulled both of her boys in close for a hug. "Of course, we are. It's tradition, right? Why don't you call, Jameson? I'll have my usual." "Me too," Jackson said. "With a side of everything else. I'm starving!" "When aren't you hungry?" Jameson asked, digging a menu out of the drawer of the hallway table. "Look who's talking. I could have sworn I saw you eat green beans out of the can earlier today." Jameson shrugged. "I was hungry and there wasn't anything else to eat." Eleanor shooed them away. "Go and order. It's getting late. We have a movie to watch." And she still had some gifts to wrap before dinner arrived. Climbing the stairs to her bedroom, she stopped halfway and looked at the picture of her and Gary on their wedding day. Removing the picture from the wall, she carried it with her to her bedroom.

She set the photo down on bed, leaning it against his pillow then curled up on the bed beside it. The sun had set long ago, leaving only the small nightlight in the corner of the room to light the space. Downstairs, she heard the heavy-footed sounds of her boys, probably tackling each other the way they had since they were toddlers. Eleanor closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. She could no longer detect any lingering scent of Gary. A single tear escaped one eye and trailed down her cheek, landing on the pillowcase beneath her head. She'd hoped the visit to the cemetery would somehow offer her closure or something but all it seemed to do was make her miss him more. The doorbell rang. Dinner must have arrived. Sure enough, Jameson yelled up the stairs, "Mom! I need money!" "I'm coming!" She moved off the bed and headed downstairs, grabbing the purse she'd left on her dresser when she'd come up a little bit ago. "Merry Christmas," the delivery driver said, handing her a receipt. "Merry Christmas," Eleanor replied, pulling some money from her purse. "Thank you for delivering tonight." The driver left and Eleanor joined her boys in the kitchen, waving the long piece of receipt paper. "Did you two order one of everything or what?" "We're growing boys. We need nourishment,"

Jackson said, rubbing his belly. "I think both of you are well past your growth spurt years." "Nope," Jackson said. "My anatomy teacher said boys can grow into their twenties." "I'm pretty sure you're as tall as you're gonna get." Eleanor pinched his cheek lightly. "Mom!" Jackson rubbed at his cheek. "Come on, we have a movie to watch." Eleanor picked up her container of beef and broccoli and headed to the living room. The twins followed her. "You boys did a wonderful job the Christmas tree. I meant to tell you that the other day but I didn't. It looks beautiful. But where's the star for the top?" "Well." Jameson looked at his brother who nodded. "We were thinking we'd get an angel to put on top of the tree from now on. Kind of like Dad, looking down as our guardian angel." Eleanor grabbed both her boys up in a hug. "I think that is a fantastic idea." "Good." Jackson pulled something out from behind the couch. "Because I found this one online and I thought it was perfect." He handed the piece to Eleanor and the tears came instantly. "Where did you find this?" The angel in her hand wore a police uniform complete with hat and Gary's badge number on its badge. Gossamer wings came out from the back of its shirt. "That website with all the crafters on it. We

special ordered it." Eleanor wiped her eyes. "It's absolutely perfect." "We thought you should be the one to put it on top of the tree." Jameson pulled a stepladder out from behind one of the chairs and set it by the tree. Eleanor walked over to the ladder and climbed the two steps so that she could reach the top of the tree. Kissing her fingertip, she pressed it to the angel before placing it on the tree. Stepping down, she wrapped her arms around Jackson and Jameson and the three of them stared up a the newly placed angel. "I love you boys. Your father did too. The day you were born was his proudest moment. I can still see the goofy, lovestruck look on his face when the nurse placed one of you in each of his arms. It will always be one of my absolute favorite memories." "We're all gonna be okay, Mom. You know that, right?" Jackson asked. "It's going to take time but we are a strong family, and we have each other," Jameson said. Eleanor looked from Jackson to Jameson and then up at the angel. "How could we not? We have our own personal guardian angel." She hugged them both. "We are going to be all right."



"You boys ready to go? I don't want to be late!" "We're coming!" Jackson yelled back. "My brother has to fix his hair. Can't have one strand out of place." "You're gonna have more than messy hair if we don't get there on time!" Eleanor grabbed her purse and keys and opened the front door. "I'll be in the car. Hurry up!" Today was the day she finally got to tell the world how much had been taken from her. Sean Temple had been convicted of capital murder and today the judge would hand down his sentence. The prosecutor's office asked her if she and the boys wanted to make witness impact statements. Her

husband's killer would finally have to face her and for the first time since Gary died, she would be heard. "Sorry, Mom!" Jameson jumped in the front seat. "I actually couldn't find my other shoe. It had nothing to do with my hair." "Sure it didn't." Jackson slid in to the backseat. "So, you won't mind if I do this?" He reached up and messed his brother's hair. "Jackass!" "That's Jackson to you, boy." "Both of you—be quiet already!" Eleanor put the car in gear and backed out of the driveway. "You look nice, Mom," Jameson said. "Thanks, sweetie. You boys do too." "I can't believe this is it," Jackson said. "The end. After today, Sean Temple will rot in jail, hopefully for the rest of his life." "Hey, Mom? There's something I wanted to tell you." Jameson turned to look at her. "What is it?" "I've decided to drop out of school." "You what?" Eleanor slammed her foot on the brakes in the middle of their street. He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and held it up. "I applied to the police department. And I got in. The academy starts August first." Her son looked so proud of himself she couldn't even begin to tell him that her heart was breaking in

two. She'd already lost her husband to the job. Now her son? "Are you absolutely sure this is what you want? No one expects you to follow in your father's footsteps, you know?" He nodded. "I know. It's what I want. I've given it a ton of thought and it's what I'm meant to do. I feel it in here." Jameson pointed to his chest. "So many people have told me how Dad touched their lives. He did so much good in this city and I want to carry on his legacy. Do the things Dad never got to do and maybe a few things of my own." She looked at Jackson in the rearview mirror. "Did you know about this?" He held his hands up. "He made me swear to secrecy in case he didn't get in." "I suppose you are doing the same thing?" Please, not both her children. Jackson shook his head. "No. But I changed my major to prelaw. I've decided to become a prosecutor. I want to put guys like Sean Temple away for hurting others like he hurt our family." It had been a long time since Eleanor had shed a tear over her husband but at that moment, while her chest swelled with pride, her eyes filled with tears. "You father would be so proud of both of you. I'm so proud of you." "We should probably go now." Jameson pointed to the clock on the dash.

"Right." They stayed silent the rest of the way to the courthouse. Eleanor parked and they went inside in search of the courtroom assigned to the Temple sentencing. "You okay, Mom?" Jackson whispered as they sat down. She nodded. "I got this." "Hey, girl." Vivian hugged her from behind. Next to her sat Marietta. "Thank you for coming. I need the moral support." A door opened at the back of the room. Eleanor turned to see Antonio and Ricky walk in. They sat in the same row as Vivian and Marietta but they both stared at table where the defense attorney sat. Once the judge entered the courtroom, the court officers brought in Sean Temple. He wore an orange jumpsuit, shackles on his ankles and his arms were handcuffed to a belt on his waist. "Fucker," Antonio whispered under his breath. "That's too good for him," Ricky whispered back, muttering a few Spanish words. Both attorneys made their statements and then the prosecutor invited Eleanor to the stand. She stood up, bringing her piece of paper with her. She felt Marietta and Vivian pat her on the back. The boys nodded at her in support. "You got this, Mom," Jameson said. Eleanor walked up to the stand in front of the

judge and placed her piece of paper on it. She looked at Sean, square in the eye, took a deep breath and said, "I forgive you. I will never forget what you have done. The hole you created in my heart and in our family. I will never forget the feeling of holding my husband in my arms as he took his last breath. I will never forget what it felt like to go home to an empty house and sleep in a cold, empty bed. And I will definitely never forget that you robbed my children of their father. But, I forgive you. If I don't, I am the only one who will suffer and I refuse to spend one more ounce of my energy on you or the terrible thing you've done. I hope one day you realize, if you haven't already, the magnitude of your actions. The ripple effect that they have caused in our community. Until that day comes, I offer you my forgiveness so that my family may move on with our lives." She picked up her paper and walked back to her seat. Vivian and Marietta had tears in their eyes. Jackson and Jameson were smiling and Sean Temple, looked like he'd just lost his best friend too. Good. No matter what sentence he received, he no longer mattered in her life. Saying the words out loud had made it so. Life without Gary would never be the same as it was when he was alive. But she could do it on her own and she would.

With her own personal guardian angel watching her back.



"Mom! Let's go! We're going to be late!" Jackson yelled from the bottom of the stairs. Eleanor could hear him pacing the wood floor. He was more nervous and excited than she was. Eleanor picked up the photo of her and Gary that sat on her dresser. She'd had the picture of her pinning his badge to his uniform at his academy graduation framed the day the judge sent Sean Temple away for killing her husband in cold blood. It took her a long time to be able to look at it with a smile instead of tears. Today, she smiled and she cried. Tears of sadness mixed with happiness and pride. "I wish you could be there, Gary. It's a big day

for our boy Jameson. He's finally decided what he wants to do with his life and I just know you'd be busting out of your uniform with pride." "Mom! Come on!" Jackson yelled. She pressed a kiss to her finger and then pressed the finger to the image of Gary. "I love you still with all my heart and I'll miss you until the end of time." She set the frame down and grabbed her purse off her bed. Jackson stood in the foyer, holding out her black wool coat. "What took you so long?" he asked as she slipped on the coat. "Just had to let your father know what's going on." Eleanor smiled at Jackson. "I want him to know the legacy he has left behind in the two of you." "I know he's out there, watching over us. But, if he were here, he'd be having a fit because we are going to be late!" Jackson yanked open the door. It was only a week until Christmas, their second without Gary. The thought of another year of holidays without him made her heart ache but life had to keep moving forward. It took her a long time to understand that but she was trying. The boys had hung some lights on the front of the house and on this night, there was actually a light snowfall making everything feel very festive. "Careful, Mom. The steps are kinda icy." Jackson held out his hand to help her down the

steps. He reminded her so much of Gary. Jackson had his father's stoicism. He took everything in stride. Well, almost everything. Gary's death had hit him hard but it had also given him a new sense of direction and determination. They got in the car and Jackson drove them to the theater where Jameson's police academy graduation was scheduled to take place. Eleanor closed her eyes and thought about the last time she'd been in that building. Gary graduated the academy right after they'd gotten married. He'd stood so straight and proud on that stage with his classmates, his shoes polished to a high shine and his brass so bright it could blind someone. When his name was called and she was invited to the stage to pin his badge to his uniform, she thought she saw their entire future in the crystal blue pools of his eyes. "We're here. Mom? You okay?" She looked over at her son. "Yes, why?" "Because you are crying." She felt the dampness on her cheeks with her fingertips. "I guess I am." "Are you sure you want to do this? I can—" Eleanor held up a hand to stop him. "I'm fine, Jackson. Just took a little trip down memory lane, is all." She opened the car door and Jackson followed suit. Together, they walked in to the building and

found a small crowd waiting to be seated. "Eleanor!" Vivian appeared at her side, scooping her up in a tight hug. She looked at Jackson over Eleanor's shoulder. "You look so handsome tonight." "Thank you, Ms. Vivian." "Is Mari here yet?" Eleanor asked. Vivian waved toward the auditorium. "She's inside, holding front row seats for all of us." Eleanor followed Vivian's motion and spotted their friend sitting in a seat, a gorgeous curly haired baby in her arms. "Did she tell you her news?" Vivian laughed. "Yes. Imagine finding out she is pregnant the same month she and Ricky adopted Olivia." Eleanor smiled. "Sometimes God is really good." "Is Tony here?" Jackson asked, scanning the small foyer. "He's not home from school yet. They had a basketball game out of state. You know he got a full athletic scholarship, right?" Vivian looked so proud it made Eleanor smile. "Yeah, he told me when it happened. That's awesome," Jackson replied. The lights dimmed briefly. "I think that's our cue," Vivian said, leading them in to the seating area. As promised, Marietta had all the front row

seats saved. Many of the other seats were already filled with officers and officials from the city. "Did I just see the mayor?" Eleanor whispered to Vivian as they walked. She nodded. "You did. Practically every city official and police officer in Virginia Beach is here tonight to watch Jameson Hart get sworn in. I heard there's even some from other Hampton Roads cities." "Are you serious?" Eleanor asked, looking around again. Several familiar faces smiled back at her. Some gave a nod, others waved. "Because of Gary?" "He was well-liked and respected on the job." Eleanor turned to see Antonio behind her, dressed in full uniform. "Antonio!" She gave him a huge hug. "It's been so long since I've seen you." He smiled, the relaxed easy smile he'd always had before the shooting. "Been busy. You know how it is. The job never stops." "You look wonderful." His expression turned serious. "It's been a long road, and to be honest, I'm still walking it, but I'm better than I have been in a long time." He nodded toward the stage of empty chairs where the new officers would soon be seated. "Gary'd be real proud of his boy." Eleanor nodded. "Yeah, he would. I think it was

always meant to be." "It's in a person's blood, Ellie." He kissed her on the cheek, then gave his wife a kiss on the lips. "You two beautiful women better have a seat. Things are getting started." Several officers walked on to the stage. "Come sit!" Marietta waved to her and Vivian. Jackson was already in a seat. Vivian sat next to Marietta and Eleanor sat between Vivian and Jackson. She leaned over Vivian to give Marietta a quick hug and a slight rub to her belly. "Congratulations. Thanks for getting the best seats in the house, Mari." Marietta smiled, her entire face lighting up. "It's nothing short of a miracle but I'll take it." She pointed to the stage where Ricky now sat with the Chief of Police and a few other higher-ranking officers. "It doesn't hurt to have your husband teaching at the academy. He got me in early." "He looks good up there. I think the change had been good for him. Jameson said he's a great instructor." Marietta nodded. "I think he just needed a change. Things were never the same working the streets after Gary died." "Antonio says the same thing," Vivian said. "They had a good thing going and once Gary was gone and Connor got fired, nothing felt right. He is loving being a detective now."

The class of graduates filed on to the stage and sat in the two rows of seats to one side of the stage. When they were all seated, the chief stood up and walked to the podium. "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the sixty-second graduation of the Virginia Beach Police Academy. This is a powerful night for many you, witnessing history coming around full circle. A little over a year ago, we lost one of our finest officers to ever patrol the streets of our fair city. Officer Gary Hart died a hero, aiding a fellow officer and saving many lives that night. Tonight, we will witness the graduation of his son, Jameson, a new generation of the Hart family joining our fine force. I ask that each and every one of you take Officer Hart and his fellow rookie officers under your wing and show them how to be a part of the best group of officers I have ever had the privilege of working with." Thunderous applause filled the auditorium as the chief took his seat. Eleanor wiped away tears and saw several others doing the same. A few more people made speeches and then Ricky stepped up to the podium to read the list of graduates' names while their loved one pinned their first badge to their uniform. Jameson was fifth on the list. Eleanor waited, literally on the edge of her seat until Ricky motioned for her to come on stage.

As she walked up the side staircase, Ricky said, "Officer Jameson Hart. Badge number 1352." Eleanor froze and looked at Ricky. He nodded and smiled, as he continued. "Officer Hart will be wearing the badge number that belonged to his father, in memory of Officer Gary Hart." Once again, thunderous applause filled the room. All across the auditorium officers and civilians rose to their feet. Some called out, others wiped at their eyes but they all stood in memory of her Gary and support of their son. Eleanor somehow managed to cross the stage to where Jameson stood, his expression serious but his eyes moist. She took the badge, one she had seen a hundred times before and ran her finger over the number engraved in it before pinning it to Jameson's freshly starched uniform shirt. "I'm so proud you, baby. And I know your father is." Jameson grinned down at her. "Thanks, Mom." From somewhere over her shoulder, Eleanor caught the flash of a camera as someone snapped a picture of her at the very moment she closed the pin on Jameson's shirt. It transported her back in time to the last time she stood in that spot and for just a moment she saw Gary smiling down at her instead of Jameson. Ricky read the next name and Eleanor left the stage. When she returned to her seat, Jackson gave

her a hug. "I swear I saw Dad standing up there with you," he whispered in her ear. "I know. I felt him too." For the first time since Gary's death, Eleanor felt real peace. "I think we're going to be all right." "You know Dad's got our backs." Eleanor wiped at a stray tear. "Always."


This was one of those books that I really wanted to write but I needed a lot of support to get through it. My emotions rode a wild roller coaster as the words poured onto the page. Without my favorite editor Allie Kincheloe who lets me bounce ideas off of her at any hour of the day or night, I wouldn't have been able to pull it off. And Samatha Harris is the best sprint partner in the world. Even when I didn’t feel like writing, she was there ready to go. If not for that month of sprints, I might still be writing this book. Thank you also to Maria Vickers and Lip Services Promo for helping me get this book out there for the world to read. Finally, a huge thank you to my husband, my hero and love, for always supporting my dreams.


Science teacher by day, writer and mom by night, Carolyn LaRoche lives near the ocean with her husband, two boys, rescue puppy and two cats. She loves baseball, books, food videos and trying new recipes. The beach is her happy place and snow has become her arch enemy after years of living in New England. Visit her online at:


One moment changed everything… Evie Ward had everything she’d ever dreamed of. An actionpacked job where no two shifts were ever the same, the best friend a girl could ever want, and a fairy tale wedding just days away. Her life was absolutely perfect. Until one bullet— one horrible choice—left her with a broken heart and shattered dreams. Fleeing the city she loved and a lifetime of memories, Evie took a job in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in the hopes that the ocean air and fresh beaches could somehow restore her soul. Falling in love again wasn’t part of the plan. Landon Reed was on top of the world. The money, the women, the status—he had it all until one bad decision nearly cost him his life. His father gave him three months to get his act together or be cut off from the family fortune and business. No house, no job and no money. His will and his patience are tested further when his father hires a nurse to whip him into shape. She may be little but she's mean and it looks like Landon has finally met his match. With her shattered heart and his broken spirit, the road to recovery will be long. Can they help each other heal or will their fractured pasts be too much to overcome? Available here.
Carolyn LaRoche - The Line That Binds

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