Voluntary Action by Meagan Lucas
Judge's Choice, 2018 Fiction Contest
A river of sweat ran down Candice’s back. She could feel it pooling beneath her breasts, and under her arms. Her clothes clung. The scent of vodka seeped out of her pores. Her thighs stuck to the vinyl chair. She was going to leave a sweaty splotch, in the shape of her undercarriage, on the seat. She wished she’d worn pants. Her lips were chapped and peeling, the dried flaps rasping against each other. She pinched the dangling skin between her teeth and pulled. A throat cleared. Not hers. Her eyes slid over to the investigator.
“Do you have a response, Ms. Nix?” he said, leaning forward.
He was clicking a pen with his thumb and Candice had no idea what the question was.
“Um…” she said, alternately searching the stained ceiling tiles and her fingernails for the answer.
He looked up from his notes. He would describe himself as a young fifty, Candice thought. His suit was nice; it hugged his shoulders. She felt wrinkled and damp. She couldn’t remember the last time she wore this dress, any dress, really. He had salt and pepper hair trimmed short on the sides, left long enough on the top to sweep over. He got it cut somewhere hip. Not Great Clips, like her.
“I asked if you think Sherri Thompson deserves justice.”
“Of course.” Candice replied.
“Do you think her family, her children, deserve to know why she died?”
Candice nodded, and began to chew on the side of her thumb. The tip of her tongue worried a hangnail and she tasted blood.
“Ms. Nix, you’re going to have to answer aloud.” He tipped his head to the video camera in the corner. “This protects you and me,” he’d said, setting it up, what seemed like hours ago.
She took a deep breath. “Yes.”
“Isn’t this important to you?”
“I’m sorry.” She sat up straight. She tried to focus on his questions, but he kept asking about Sherri Thompson and Candice had spent every moment of the last three months trying to not think about her.
“Are you responsible for her death?”
There it was, like a shit on the floor; the question that internal affairs, that everyone, wanted the answer to.
She blew out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding. “I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you tell me what happened, from the beginning.”
“I wasn’t feeling well…”
Candice’s stomach heaved and vomit splashed into the gas station toilet. The remains of this morning’s Bojangles sausage biscuit floated like rafts on the brown froth. Chunks of grape jelly dotted the jetsam. She rested her sweaty cheek on the cool plastic of the toilet seat and focused on breathing through her mouth. The repeated tap-tap-tap of a timid knock on the bathroom door broke her concentration.
“Candice,” came a voice from the other side then a throat clearing. “Excuse me, um, Deputy Nix, we just got a call from dispatch.”
The pile of toilet paper she’d placed on the floor crinkled beneath the knees of her uniform pants. She stood as he tapped on the door again.
“Alright!” she called. “Jesus Fucking Christ, hold your god-damn horses.”
She gathered the paper and mashed it into the overflowing trash can. She flushed. She washed her hands and ran them over her face. She accidently saw herself in the mirror. She looked like the stuffed toy her dogs had been dragging around the backyard. Her hair was dirty. She smelled like a hamster cage. Purple bags hung from her lower lashes and her cheeks were puffy. She looked at least fifteen pounds heavier than she was. She grabbed her thermos and opened the door.
January sky hung thick above the mountains on the horizon. It would snow tonight, if not sooner. Deputy McKenzie stood three feet from the door zipping and unzipping his coat. Hovering. She crossed the icy parking lot towards her cruiser and he followed in her wake.
“I can… um, drive if you don’t feel up to it.”
She snorted. “Get in.” She opened the driver’s door and sat in the seat perfectly shaped to her large ass. She crammed the key in the ignition. McKenzie had almost folded his lengthy body into the car before she started rolling. “Where to?”
He relayed the address from his note pad. “Blue Gap Road between Berea Chapel and Marshall Pass. Parole violation. Heroin. DSS is on the scene.”
“This is some first day you’re going to have.” She took a deep drink from her thermos, the warm liquid calmed her. Hair of the dog.
“Why do you say that, the opioid crisis?”
She looked at him: hard bodied but soft cheeked.
“You like sobbing kids?”
She ran her hand over her sweaty face and sighed. “You watch too much TV. It’s a crisis now. I forgot…now that the drugs are in neighborhoods with sidewalks, streetlights and fucking PTA.” Candice took another drink as they passed a boarded up auto body shop, and a mom and pop furniture place that was now a consignment store. “No one cares about our shitty schools, no jobs, good people trying to live off fucking disability and the poor drowning in their own vomit, or stroking out in their trailers. Darwin, they say. They buy stock in check cashing and title loan places, and grab up all the foreclosures. It just pisses me off that all of a sudden it’s a crisis because some kids with money, with Daddies who wear white shirts and ties, kids with futures, are dying. Dying is dying man. It’s always been a fucking crisis.”
Candice watched the pavement fly under her tires. Rogue snowflakes stuck to her windshield. She sent a silent prayer to whoever would listen that it would hold off until the end of her shift. The mere threat of snow was enough to panic people and empty stores of bread and milk. By the look of the sky she knew that the shelves at Ingles would already be bare. An inch or two meant that life for normal people ground to a halt. But there were always dummies who thought that the black ice was no match for their lifted truck. And then there were those whose needs, for liquids or powders or pills drove them out into the weather, and ultimately into Candice’s life. This month she’d spent more time squinting through her windshield and pulling idiots out of the ditch than anything else; her soon to be ex blowing up her phone with pics of the kids making a snowman or pelting the side of the house with snowballs without her.
She turned right onto Blue Gap Road, and looked at McKenzie. “You sure you heard that address right?”
“I’m pretty sure.”
“I don’t think there’s a house there. If I remember correctly that’s the backside of the Gentry place on the one side, and state land on the other."
“Maybe you’re thinking of someplace else.”
“I’ve lived here my whole life.”
Blue Gap narrowed after Berea Chapel and Candice eased off the gas. They both searched the banks for a break in the brush that would indicate a driveway, and potentially a house. Sure enough, they rounded a bend and a fresh driveway appeared. The gravel was still loose.
“What’s the name?” she asked.
“Shit.” Candice banged her palm off the steering wheel. “I bet anything that’s Sherrilyn Gentry. We went to school together.” They pulled up in front of a single wide and parked behind a beat-to-hell brown Aerostar minivan and next to the navy DSS Suburban. The yard was spotted with mounds of dirt waving flags of brown grass, and littered with faded plastic toys. “I thought she went away to college.”
As Candice and McKenzie climbed out of the cruiser and adjusted themselves, the front door opened. Five kids between the ages of ten and three coursed out, followed by a thin grey-haired woman with a toddler on her hip. As they marched closer, Candice could see their wide eyes, wet cheeks and runny noses. A medium-sized one in the middle sniffed loudly. Candice looked over at McKenzie out of the corner of her eye. His Adam’s apple kept bobbing and his face was pale. The social worker nodded at Candice as she passed.
The floor was littered with toys and small socks. Papers with crayon scribble were taped to every wall. Two sippy cups and a plastic bowl with soggy cereal and thick milk lay on the scarred coffee table. Elmo sang a song on the television.
Candice walked toward the door. She heard the beep of the suburban unlocking, murmurs and a loud hiccup from the children. She hurried up the cement block steps and knocked on the door. No answer. She looked at McKenzie. He would never be ready for this, and it wasn’t just that he was young and pretty. There was no way one could prepare themselves to take a mother away from her children. She knocked again and called: “Sherri, we’re coming in.”
She pushed the door open and stepped through. The floor was littered with toys and small socks. Papers with crayon scribble were taped to every wall. Two sippy cups and a plastic bowl with soggy cereal and thick milk lay on the scarred coffee table. Elmo sang a song on the television. The air was solid with the scent of other people’s bodies, other people’s food. Her stomach rolled and forced bile up her esophagus to remind her that it hated her.
“Where is she?” he asked, gun in hand.
Candice shook her head. Why one of these couldn’t go smoothly, she didn’t know. “They always go back to the bedroom.” She signaled for him to follow with a jerk of her head. They moved slowly down the hall toward a half closed door. Candice rested her right hand on the gun on her belt as she pushed the door open with her left.
Sherri was pacing on the other side of the bed. Her hands were in her stringy blonde hair. A men’s undershirt and sweatpants dangled from her skeletal frame. Candice put her hands up, palms out.
“Hi Sherri. Do you remember me? I’m Candice Nix, well, I was Candice Hawthorne. We went to high school together.”
Sherri glanced at them before turning and pacing away. The floor, bed, and every other horizontal surface was covered in trash or clothing.
“Sherri. We need you to come with us. You’re going to need something warmer on though. It’s cold out there.”
Sherri didn’t react, or stop moving. Her hands shook.
“She’s high as a kite,” McKenzie whispered, eyes wide.
“Yes. Watch carefully.”
“Sherri.” Candice said, hands still up, moving toward the strung-out woman. “Sherri, have you eaten?”
The woman paused and looked at Candice as if for the first time. “I’m hungry” she said.
“Let go get you something to eat then,” Candice grabbed a hoodie and a pair of sneakers from the floor as she guided Sherri out to the living room. She handed the items to McKenzie. “Put these on her.” Then she went to the kitchen and pulled open the fridge. Finding nothing but a bottle of ketchup and some beer, she turned and surveyed the counter. She sighed and returned to the living room.
“We’ll have to go through a drive-thru.”
“Are you sure that’s protocol?”
“It’s a small town, McKenzie. And it’s a half hour drive into Asheville. She’s obviously high, let’s get her some food and she’ll feel better. Why the fuck isn’t she dressed?”
McKenzie worked on Sherri’s shoes while Candice pulled Sherri’s damp arms through the sleeves of the sweater.
“You’re gonna get hypothermia, girl. All this sweating.”
They locked the door behind them and led her to the cruiser. Snow was beginning to fall in earnest and Candice had to use the wipers to clear the windshield. Hot air blew through the vents and fogged the windshield. Candice watched Sherri pull at the neck of her hoodie through the rear-view mirror. The hot air made Candice’s head swim and her stomach turn, she dialed it down and slid her window down a crack.
“Is this what you were imagining?” she asked McKenzie. “Back in school? Is this the kind of police work you thought you’d be doing? Me, I pictured myself in a uniform, god the uniform is sexy isn’t it? I was gonna help kids cross the street. Make these people feel secure. Help in emergencies too, right? Car accidents, or old people having heart attacks or breaking hips. I would have dreams sometimes about finding a piece of evidence that the detectives missed at a crime and getting a moment of glory. I never imagined this. Hauling girls I knew once to jail for drug charges. Pounding on doors to investigate reports of gunshots to find children home watching their baby brothers and sisters, diapers smelly and saggy. All the while Dad who hasn’t had a job in years is out back in the shed doing who knows what and Mom is at the diner pulling a second shift, again. I’ll admit, Mayberry tricked me. Fucking Andy Griffith. I was fooled. Damn it.” She punched the steering wheel. A chill ran over her skin and her upper lip was wet. Breathing deep to control the nausea she watched the road carefully for somewhere to stop.
Candice pulled into McDonald’s parking lot, opened the door and threw up on the pavement. “I’m gonna go to the bathroom, and get her a burger. Watch her.” She said at McKenzie and dragged her feet across the collecting snow. The bathroom was blissfully clean. Candice emptied her already empty stomach into the gleaming bowl, just bile now, bright yellow. She went to the sink and splashed water on her face. She put her hands under the air dryer to direct some of the breeze at her face and collar. She was damp and itchy. At the counter she ordered a burger and an orange soda and waited while a teenager watched her, or rather her uniform, from the corner. She scowled at him as she carried her paper bag and cup out to the parking lot.
McKenzie was standing three feet outside the door, playing with his zipper again. His hair was full of snow. “She was screaming,” he said.
Candice could see the cruiser bouncing from across the lot. The food made a wet thud as it hit the ground.
Opening the door to the backseat she saw the stain on Sherri’s pants and thought she’d peed them. It took Candice a moment to realize that it was sweat. “Turn the fucking heat down,” she barked at McKenzie, ducking inside the car. Sherri was vibrating. Her skin was searing under Candice’s finger tips. White foam leaked from Sherri’s mouth and she clutched her chest. McKenzie spoke from the front seat: “she said she ate something.”
“She didn’t want to get caught. So she ate it. That’s what she said.”
“Christ.” Candice’s mind raced. This wasn’t like any heroin OD she’d ever seen. It looked like a heart attack.
“Call dispatch. We need an ambulance. Move your ass,” she barked as she dove out the door and rounded the car to the trunk. Rifling inside she grabbed their kit and the naloxone, her hands shook badly as she pried off the colored caps and assembled the tube. She raced to the backseat and climbed on top of convulsing Sherri, holding her chin to steady her face as she stuck the tube up her nose and pressed the plunger. She did the second nostril. She held her breath.
“What’s supposed to happen?” McKenzie asked from behind her, Candice was startled, she’d forgotten he was there.
Sherri’s face turned from scarlet to blue. Candice began CPR. “Not this,” she said.
Candice took a deep breath and looked up. The investigator had his hand on his chin.
“Thank you, Ms. Nix. I’m sure that was hard for you. I’m sure you understand the pressure I’m under. That we are under as a department to figure out what went wrong here.”
Candice didn’t answer. She didn’t care about the pressure that he was under. She’d read about the lawsuit from Sherri’s family. She thought about the parade of children, damp cheeked and wide eyed. She hoped they won.
“So, I’m going to ask you again, the original question, the reason we’re here. And I’m going to remind you, that you said earlier that you wanted Sherri to have justice, you wanted her family to know the truth. And, I believe you. So, I’m going to ask you, are you responsible for Sherri Thompson’s death?”
If not for the camera, she would have screamed. She would have thrown the chair, beat her fists on the wall, fallen to her knees on the linoleum tile and made him feel as helpless and futile as she felt. As she was.
Of course she held herself responsible. Couldn’t he see? Wasn’t he looking at her? Everything from her thinning hair to her wrinkled dress was an admission. Her failed marriage, the mountain of vodka bottles in the bottom of her garbage can, and her inability to sleep were all the evidence he needed. Candice’s stomach rolled and she remembered the gleaming white bowl of the McDonald’s toilet and she wondered for the thousandth time if maybe she’d spent longer in there than she’d had to. She wondered if she’d reminded McKenzie to keep his eyes on Sherri. She wondered if she should have realized when Sherri’s face bloomed crimson that it was meth and not heroin that she’d eaten and that the naloxone Candice had administered was useless. She wondered if any of this would have happened if she’d been sober. If this was even a job she was able to do sober.
“Candice?” The investigator prodded.
She looked him in the eye. His were blue and clear and the skin beneath them was smooth. She couldn’t remember the last time her eyes looked like that. “I did everything I could, everything I knew to do.”