Updated: Feb 23
By H.K. Slade
Note: I wrote this story a year ago after hearing Need the Sun to Break by James Bay. It's not really my type of music, but it hit me a certain way. Working night shift as a first responder is a challenge people with regular jobs don't give much thought. For the responders, the sunrise isn't the start of new day; it's the light by which firefighters, EMTs, nurses, doctors and cops see the wreckage of last night's battles. The song seemed to capture the feel of one of those mornings. This is a fictional account, but not an unrealistic one. Next time you wake up a few minutes early one morning, give the song a listen and spare a thought to the men and women coming home after a night spent helping strangers in the worst moments of their lives.
Side Note: This story was selected as a finalist for NCSU's James Hurst Prize 2020.
The waiting was like an itch. Tim just wanted to scratch it and be done. He’d prepared for this day for eight months in the academy and now he just wanted it to be in his rearview mirror. He couldn’t wait for the following morning when he could sit at home and think back on his first shift as a memory.
No matter what they say or one day come to believe, no cop enjoys their first day on the job.
“You lucked out,” people told him so often he couldn’t remember who said it first. “Your training officer is squared away.” The statement was invariably followed up by a story.
Senior Officer Sean Doyle wasn’t just squared away; he was a legend. He’d grabbed jumpers off ledges, broken up riots, exchanged gunfire with bank robbers. And now he was going to teach Tim how to do what he did. Every heartbeat thundered in the rookie’s stomach as he sat in the station waiting to meet his training officer for the first time.
At ten minutes until 7:00 PM, Doyle entered the room. He moved with the calm assurance of a tiger, and Tim almost snapped to attention. With neither introduction nor preamble, his training officer presented him with a silver Ford key.
“We’re riding in vehicle two-eighteen today. It’s out back. Get your gear loaded up and log into everything. I’ll be out in twelve minutes, and I expect you to be ready to answer calls.”
“Yes, sir,” Tim answered.
“It’s Doyle, not sir. I’m not your boss, I’m your partner. Just get the car set up. And keep it clean. For the next twelve hours, that’s our home.”
“Maybe if your mother didn’t wrap her legs around every trucker with an open tab, you’d know what it means to be a wife!”
The two officers stood underneath the apartment window listening to the fight raging on the second floor. Tim licked his dry lips.
“Do we, um, need to get up there?”
Doyle stood like a statue, his thumbs hooked behind his belt, his head tilted back to look up the window. Slowly, as if reaching a ponderous decision, he shook his head.
“No. Nothing’s breaking, just a lot of yelling. It’s better to spend a minute and get an idea of what’s going on.”
A woman’s voice rang from the apartment above. “Maybe if you knew what to do with that little mushroom between your legs, I’d act more like a wife should!”
“That should do it,” Doyle declared. “You ready to head up now?”
“Yes, sir,” Tim said, trying not to let the quaver he felt behind his sternum show in his voice.
A good loud knock brought a sweaty man wearing a tank top to the door. His impossibly broad chest heaved as he tried to catch his breath. “What?” he asked, looking Tim up and down disdainfully.
“Uhm, somebody called and was worried about the noise.”
The man scoffed. “What? Get out of here with that shit.”
“Okay, well, could you maybe just keep it down?”
“Whatever,” the man said and tried to close the door on them. Doyle, who’d been standing to the side and letting Tim handle things on his first call, stepped forward quickly and put his hand on the door. The thump from the impact of wood on unyielding flesh rang like a base drum.
“First we’re going to step inside and make sure everybody is alright,” Doyle said, and his tone made it clear that was exactly what was going to happen.
Tim waited for the big rig to pass before restarting the standardized field sobriety test. The wash off the trailer hit him like a hand on his back. It passed quickly, but just as he was about to launch into the complicated list of instructions, the woman leaned forward and hurled a pint of half-digested strawberry daiquiri all over Tim’s shoes. He tried to jump back out of the way but wasn’t quick enough. Doyle, on the other hand, didn’t even move; he just didn’t seem to be standing where any of the vomit went. The woman wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and straightened up.
“Ma’am,” Tim said, ignoring the mess and trying to get on with the test before he forgot what he was supposed to do next. The rancid/sweet smell of her barf hit him and he fought his own nausea. “I need you to follow my finger with just your eyes. Don’t move you head. Do you understand?”
“Kiss my ass, you racist piece of shit.”
“What?” he asked, genuinely confused and growing more and more frustrated with the woman by the second.
“You heard me, racist! The girls in high school wouldn’t give you the time, so now you pull us out of cars and harass us because you’ve got a badge? Does it make you feel like a big man? Are you proud of yourself?”
Heat flared around Tim’s neck. “Hold on a damn minute, you stuck-up—”
“That’s enough,” Doyle cut him off. “Officer Roy, give me some light. We’re not going to have anymore of this mess. Lady, you can go to jail right now, or you can do these tests and try to convince us that you’re sober enough to drive. Your choice. It doesn’t matter to me either way.” Taking over the test from Tim, Doyle held up one finger and started the HGN.
The woman focused on his hand, caught the glint of the passing headlights on his wedding ring, and said, “I’ll bet your wife’s a good little whore. Did she make rent by sucking off the college boys? Is that how you met her?”
Tim couldn’t understand how Doyle stayed so calm all the time. At the domestic earlier, both halves of the couple had berated the officers at every opportunity. The insults just beaded up and ran off Doyle’s hide. He brought the pair under control with nothing more than a few words and the force of his will. As impressive as that was, it was nothing compared to how he’d dealt with the drunk driver.
The vile woman had gotten under Tim’s skin so thoroughly that he wanted to punch her in the face, and he was by nature a non-violent person. She’d been even nastier with Doyle. During the lengthy booking process, she threw every conceivable insult she could at the senior officer. None of it stuck. She’d gone from calling him a Nazi to using racial slurs and Doyle showed the effect of her statements about as much as she acknowledged the hypocrisy of them, which is to say not at all. Tim doubted this training officer’s heartrate went above ninety the whole time.
“There,” Doyle said, and pointed to a blinking light in the woods by side of the highway. “That’s our wreck.”
Tim pulled to the shoulder and the two officers got out and followed the deep ruts in the mud that led from the asphalt to the tree line. “It must’ve been flying,” he commented, noticing the angle of the tire tracks. It looked like the car had gone sideways at one point.
Doyle got on the radio to update their location, and Tim crept forward to check on the driver. The car was wrapped around a tree, steam hissing from the radiator. Every window was shattered and the blue lights of their patrol car sparkled in the glass. A man lay with his head resting sideways in the backseat, only visible from the shoulder up. He was clearly dead. Tim walked around to the other end of the u-shaped car and saw a pair of bright white shoes on the dashboard. He didn’t know what he was looking at until he realized there were feet in the shoes. He looked back and forth, struggling to understand what he was seeing. There was almost ten feet of mangled wreckage between the head and the feet. It was like a grotesque magic trick.
Somewhere nearby, a phone rang in the same generic tone that came standard with an Android. Still a little in shock, Tim checked his cell first, then located the ringing phone in the field of debris that had ejected from the crash. He picked it up and looked at the cracked screen. The caller’s picture, a precious little girl standing proudly with some sort of school award, appeared under the heading, “Home.” Tim dropped it like a hot coal. His knees started to go out from under him.
“Your first body?” Doyle asked. Tim spun, startled. While he’d been in la-la land, a fire engine had arrived and firefighters were running towards them with equipment and tools.
“Y-yes,” he said, or he thought he said. Tim couldn’t be certain he made any noise.
“It won’t be your last. This is why we took that girl to jail earlier. Let’s do something about this traffic while the firemen work.”
They’d almost made it to the end of the shift when the call came: another domestic at the same apartment as before. This time they didn’t pause outside. This time there weren’t just the sounds of yelling.
“Police officers!” Tim announced as he banged on the door. His voice cracked. He still hadn’t pulled himself together from the crash. The sounds of a struggle ceased. A woman opened the door this time. She was also sweaty and wearing a tank top. There must not have been a shirt with sleeves in the entire apartment, Tim thought. The woman’s upper lip was split clean through to the gum line. She tried to keep the door mostly closed but, upon seeing her lip, Doyle forced it completely open. Her husband was standing in the middle of the living room, shirtless, his hands clenched into fists and a livid trio of scratches crisscrossing his thick chest.
“Step outside,” Doyle said. He’d been letting Tim take the lead most of the night, but not on this call. The man looked the two officers in the eye, growled something guttural, and ran to the back of the apartment. Doyle took off after him. Tim froze for a second, but then remembered that he was the police and ran after his training officer.
The shirtless man fought his way to the master bedroom closest, but Doyle caught him two steps shy, grabbing him by the arm and neck. The man flailed, striking Doyle in the ear with his elbow. The senior officer swung back, landing a fist in the man’s face. Blood and sweat flew. They went to the floor in a pile. Tim didn’t know what to do. Terrified but knowing he had to try something, he reached into the scrum and grabbed an arm. A foot flew from the melee and caught Tim square in the face. He fell back, dazed and bleeding.
The man bellowed at the top of his lungs, alternating between the phrases, “You need a warrant!” and “This is harassment!” He was so slick that Doyle couldn’t keep a grip on him. At least until he finally just bear-hugged the guy and body-slammed him on the dresser. Tim crawled over to help, blinking the tears from his eyes and trying to ignore the wetness under his nose. After a brief struggle, they managed to work the man’s arms behind his back. It was like bending rebar.
“I’ve got them,” Doyle said. “Get him cuffed.”
Tim fumbled with this cuffs but eventually got them on. The click of the ratchet as the blades cycled closed sounded like the final whistle of a grueling soccer match. All the adrenaline drained from his body, and Tim collapsed back against the dresser.
With the suspect under control, Doyle got on his radio and called for backup. Despite the fight and the arrestee’s ongoing torrent of abuse, regardless of the sweat dripping from his chin or the blood splattered in his disheveled uniform, Doyle sounded as professional as he always did on the radio. Tim was relieved to see that at least he was out of breath. It meant Doyle was human and not just a machine designed to do police work perfectly 100% of the time.
The senior officer reached over and opened the closet so that Tim could see inside. There, just feet from cuffed man’s reach, was the biggest machete Tim had ever seen. The two officers exchanged a look, and for the first time all day, Doyle smiled. Then his eyes went wide.
He should have put her in cuffs rather than showing off the machete to his rookie. Doyle knew better than that. The victim was always the wildcard in a domestic. Hell, he should have had another officer there with him, but he was the great Sean Doyle. “Doyle can handle it,” they all said.
If he could be grateful for anything, it was that he didn’t have to shoot the woman. The rookie had turned just in time to avoid the knife and Doyle had landed on her like an anvil dropped from a second story window. The weapon, a 12” butcher’s knife, flew from her hand and landed point down in the hallway carpet.
Two for jail and more evidence to process.
He waited for the rookie to get done changing. It had been a stressful night. They’d both almost been killed. Doyle would process that later. Right now, he figured the new guy had earned a handshake and a good job from his training officer for making it through his first shift.
The door to the locker room opened and the rookie came out holding his uniform and gear in a neatly folded pile. His eyes looked red, his nose swollen, and he stared at the floor like he didn’t even recognize it. Stiffly, he handed his clothes and duty belt to Doyle.
“This isn’t for me,” he said with such conviction that Doyle couldn’t think of anything to say. Unburdened, the kid started to walk passed him but stopped to pat his pocket. He withdrew the key Doyle had presented him with last night, set it atop his uniform, and left without another syllable spoken.
Peggy Doyle woke as she always did at 7:00 AM. And, just as it always was, her first action was to grab her phone. Like a reflex, she scrubbed at her eyes and searched for notifications and only relaxed when she saw there was one message from Sean. He was thoughtful like that. If anything truly bad had happened overnight, he would have left several messages so she wouldn’t pull up a news article about a murdered officer and wonder if it was someone on his squad.
She checked the news apps, anyway. All clear.
The routine continued. Peggy brushed her teeth and started a pot of coffee. The cat, Baxter, made an appearance to demand food, only to disappear into the shadows of the living room after his needs were met. She heated a skillet for bacon and eggs, knowing that Sean would come home hungry. Soon, the smell of rich, dark roasted coffee filled the house.
Peggy was pouring herself a cup when the front door opened. She immediately stopped and went to go greet her favorite officer. She did so out of habit, true, but it was also out of a genuine desire to see her husband. Her day couldn’t really start until she felt his strong arms around her.
“How was…” she started to say, but trailed off when she saw him. Sean was always so careful to look professional at work, but he stood there, battle worn: hair a mess, bandages on his knuckles and ear, buttons missing, a sleeve ripped, a pocket torn open, and… was that blood all over his shoulder? His eyes… she saw it in his eyes, a deep, profound despair. His shoulders were pinned back, his chest out, but Peggy could tell it wasn’t his natural confidence. His proud posture was something forced, as though he could hide his pain from her.
She knew exactly what she needed to do; it wasn’t the first moment like this in her decade as a police officer’s girlfriend/wife. Without concern for the blood on his clothes, without the slightest hesitation, Peggy rushed forward and wrapped her arms around him. He returned the embrace stiffly at first. Then she felt the tremors in his chest, the brief and futile struggle to keep his emotions from breaking. Sean set his face on top of her head and all but collapsed in her arms. Peggy felt hot tears on her scalp.
“It’s okay, baby,” she told him. “You’re home now.”