Updated: Sep 25, 2021
Note: This was recently written for a short story contest about New Years resolutions. I have been reworking a manuscript about police recruits and needed a break. In the process of rewriting, one of the background characters, Garcia the Marine, decided on her own to become super interesting. I gave her room in a short story to do her own thing. Broken relationships are pervasive in law enforcement. In most cases, it's not the long shifts and missed dinners or even the danger inherent; it's the instinct many officers have to try and wall away the horrible things they see from their families that drives a wedge between them and the people who love them. I wanted to see how my favorite character at the moment would handle it. My friend/unpaid editor declared it her favorite thing I have written, so I though I would share.
Ripping the vest off felt like cracking the top on a pressure cooker. Garcia let her body armor drop and join the pile of equipment on the floor. She stood in front of the window unit and let the blessedly cool air wash over her. Her undershirt, sodden with a shift’s worth of sweat, caught the cold. It took less than a minute for a chill to hit the deputy.
“Better than Iraq,” she admitted and reflected on the irony that as much as she hated wearing body armor, she kept joining professions where it was a requirement. She peeled her undershirt off and flung it across the room. It hit the opposite wall with a splatter and clung there for a moment before dropping behind the bed. She stepped out of her unlaced boots, then her uniform pants, then hopped across the room and shucked off her socks. By the time she made it to the bathroom, a trail of filthy clothing lined her path from the front door like breadcrumbs.
The bathroom itself was immaculate, and as tired as she was, this stopped Garcia in her tracks. The room looked like it was set to be photographed for the cover of the next Southern Bathrooms Monthly.
“What the fuck?” she said, noticing the multiple layers of billowy white towels on the rack. There was a vase of fresh flowers on the back of the toilet, for god’s sake. It was not how she’d left the head thirteen hours ago when she’d gone into work.
“Sophie,” she sighed. Garcia looked around the pristine bathroom, from the polished chrome fixtures to monogramed bathrobe that had been thoughtfully set out on the toilet seat, and then back scene of utter destruction she’d left in her wake.
True to her Marine training, Garcia’s first impulse was to attack.
“Who the hell lives like this?” she thundered as she stomped out into the bedroom, naked.
The bed had been made, complete with artfully arranged decorative pillows she wasn’t allowed to sleep on built atop something called a duvet that she wasn’t allowed to sleep under. Garcia grabbed a handful of fabric and yanked. The maneuver destroyed the bedcovers and scattered the array of bric-a-brac and stuffed creatures from the nightstand, but the scent of rose petals it released negated any sense of satisfaction the gusture provided.
Garica stifled a scream and strode across the hall to the kitchen, seeking the sanctuary of what was sure to be the apartment’s last bastion against frilliness and order. It was a kitchen, after all, the place where people cooked food and ate it. Garcia had left the unwashed remains of a protein shake on the counter that morning along with the detritus of the previous evening’s takeout dinner.
She found the kitchen absolutely spotless. The phone rang, and it took every ounce of self-control for Garcia not to fling the device down the garbage disposal. She snatched it up from the entry table and answered without looking.
“What the fuck do you want?”
“Happy Monday to you, Sunshine,” Stahl said. “What bug has currently crawled up your butt and died?”
They’d known each other since the police academy. Stahl had been there for Garcia in some tough times. He was one of the few standup men in the world, and though she’d knock teeth from the mouth of anyone who would dare to say it out loud, she’d take a bullet for the guy. That bought him enough slack to make comments like that to her.
She took a breath. “Tough day at work.”
“Yeah,” Stahl said. “That’s what I heard.” His voice--calm, reassuring, steady as a half-buried tank--relieved Garcia of the need to explain further. He understood. He’d been there… if not exactly there, then somewhere like it.
“Want me to pick you up and take you out for a beer and a burger?” he asked.
“I’m naked and sweaty, Stahl.”
“If you and Sofia are having quality time together--”
“She’s not home yet,” Garcia interrupted him.
“Oh,” he said, and somehow his smile came through the line. “Well, if you need some time alone…”
“I was just getting in the shower, pervert.”
“So why are you answering my call?”
Garcia’s instinct was to clam-up, but she countermanded it. Why not? she thought. There are worse people to complain to than Stahl.
“It’s… Sophie. The place is like a museum. She must have spent the whole day cleaning. There’s a fan of magazines on my coffee table, man. I didn’t even know they still made magazines. There are fresh flowers on my toilet. Who does that?”
“Wait, let me read this back to you. You’re upset because the house is clean?”
“No, you jackass.” She thought about it. “Yes. Hell, I don’t know.”
Stahl could have laughed. If he had, Garcia would have hung up and not felt the least bit bad about it. Instead, he said, “Explain it to me. I’m on the clock, so I’ve got twelve hours to kill. If I’m not talking to you, I’ve got to go out in the heat and pull over cars. You’re a tax payer in the city of Trinton, right? Get your money’s worth.”
Garcia wondered how to explain when it didn’t even make sense to her? At least Stahl knew Sophia. Maybe he would get it. “She didn’t clean the house for me, she cleaned it for her. You know me. Do you honestly think I give a wild rat’s ass if the towels are level on the towel rack?”
“Does it bother you that they are?”
“Yes. No. Fuck. Here’s the thing, Stahl. When she makes everything perfect, it puts the pressure on me to keep it perfect. And I can’t. I can’t do anything but fuck things up.”
“Does that bother her?”
“She doesn’t say anything about it. She just refolds the towel. And it drives me fucking nuts.”
Stahl made affirmative noises, and she could picture him nodding on the other end of the line. Garcia figured he was about to say something annoyingly reasonable.
“You just want to vent, or you want advice?”
“Say what’s on your mind,” she told him.
“Sophia is tougher than you think. She knew what she was getting into when she moved in with you.”
That didn't quite track. Stahl was smart, but he didn’t know Garcia’s girlfriend like she did.
Sophia wasn’t tough. She grew up rich. Her parents loved her, they accepted her. She saw the world as someplace beautiful, full of hope and light. She didn’t see the things Garcia and Stahl saw every day, and for that, Garcia was profoundly grateful. Garcia saw the dangers, the threats. A trip to get ice cream in the middle of the night meant maneuvering around the drunk drivers, avoiding the homeless sex offenders begging for change outside the store, walking down the far aisle to flank the two gang members shoplifting candy… If everyone saw the world like she did, it would be a very gray place. The world needed people like Sophia so there could be joy and wonder. And it needed people like Garcia to keep people like her safe.
Stahl let the silence stretch, but then asked, “You remember New Years?”
“Which part? It’s been half a year. I remember you singing Karaoke. They had to unplug the machine.”
“In my defense, Cindy Lauper isn’t in my natural range. No, I was talking about the resolutions we made.”
“Yeah?” Garcia said. She’d forgotten all about them. Tequila and six months of life would do that.
“You told Sophia you’d communicate better.” Of course he remembered. "You resolved to talk to her."
“Were you taking fucking notes?”
Stahl knew what he was getting when he talked to Garcia, so he didn’t take offense to her tone. He just said what he thought needed to be said. “Maybe just ask her if the towel thing bugs her instead of assuming it. What if she thinks it’s something you want?”
She thought about it. “I hate this kumbaya shit.”
“What’s the worst that could happen?” he asked.
“Do you know how many times you’ve landed me in a pile of shit after saying that exact sentence?”
“Twice?” he guessed.
“Twice. Now let me get in the shower. It’s weird talking to you naked.”
“Yeah. I get that. Before you go, though…”
Garcia remembered that he’d called her. There was a reason. “Why did you call?”
He hesitated. That was never a good sign. “I’m up at Trinton General,” he said. “Sarge wanted me to take over the rotation on that suspect from the DWI wreck you worked today.”
“It’s been upgraded to a fatality. The little boy in the car… he didn’t make it. I hate to call you at home about this, but the detectives are going to need your report ASAP.”
Garcia swallowed, compartmentalizing the memory of the kid they’d pulled from the crumpled Nissan. Time for her game face. “Gotcha. I’ve got my laptop. I’ll knock it out after dinner.”
“You good?” Stahl asked.
“I’m good. Just need a shower. Be safe.”
“You, too. Good luck with Sophia. I’m working all night, so call if you need to.”
Garcia disconnected and dropped the phone.
Ten minutes after coming home, she finally made it into the shower. She put her face right into the showerhead and let the water wash away the sweat and the filth and the grime. The dirt cascaded off her so thickly that for a few seconds, the water looked like weak tea running down the gleaming porcelain tub. She reached for the soap and grabbed a bottle blindly. Popping the top, Garcia braced for the cloying scent of lilac or gardenias. Instead, she was hit with the wonderful warm smell of freshly baked oatmeal cookies. She loved that soap, that smell, and Sophia hated it. But there it was in their shower.
“Well, damn it.”
After finishing her shower, Garcia gathered up her uniform. She hung her vest on the patio rail and sprayed it down with Febreeze. She wrung her undershirt out and tossed it in the wash with her socks and pants. Her boots went to the mat by the front door, and she ran a vacuum over the places where she’d tracked dirt and left footprints in the meticulously randomized lines in the carpet. She made the bed again, even fluffing the ridiculous pillows that weren’t for sleeping on.
Sophia returned home to an apartment that, if it wasn’t exactly perfect, was at least as close as a Marine who grew up in a trailer with sixteen family members was ever likely to get it.
“Hello!” Sophia called as she removed her shoes and hung her purse from its hook by the front door. “It’s finally cooling off outside.”
Garcia came from the bedroom to meet her. Her hair was still slightly damp, though thankfully from the shower and not sweat. Over a pair of gym shorts, she wore the robe Sophia had laid out for her. Her skin smelled like vanilla and cinnamon. The smile on her girlfriend’s face hit Garcia like tranquilizer dart, and despite the trepidation she felt over what she was about to do, the hard-as-nails Marine relaxed.
“You look nice,” Sophia said. Garcia rolled her eyes. Sophia wore her silky black hair in a high ponytail, a form-fitting top that showed off both her shoulders and her ample chest, and poodle skirt with an actual poodle embroidered on it. Next to her, Garcia felt like a troll.
“And you look like the prettiest girl at the sock hop.”
Sophia’s smiled broadened, and she spun once so that her dress billowed out. Garcia closed the three steps between them in a rush and wrapped her arms around Sophia in a fierce hug.
“Oh! That’s nice. How was your day?”
Garcia froze. Normally, she went to a stock answer like, “Fine,” or “Same shit, different day.” She thought about her conversation with Stahl, about her resolution.
“Here’s the deal, Sophie. I haven’t always been honest with you. I think I need to protect you, but that’s not something you’ve asked for. It’s something I do to make me feel better. Do you really want to know how my day was?”
Sophia’s expression went serious. She bobbed her head like she’d been waiting to hear this question for a very long time. She stood up straight and said, “Yes, that’s why I ask.”
“Did you see in the news about that wreck on State Avenue? The one that shut down traffic at Bowen Street? That was mine. It… was a tough one.”