Shades of Gray
“C’mon Mitch, you know I can’t charge you for that coffee, not after you found those punks who kept using my mailbox for batting practice. At least grab a bearclaw, Carol just brought ’em out.”
“And you know as a law enforcement officer of this fine city I can’t accept freebies. But nice try, playing off my weakness for sweets, Joe.”
The old man chuckled, with a genuine laugh from his belly, the way such old, grandfatherly men are known to do. “Well that resolve of yours is steel tight. A man who never bends a single rule, not even the small ones. Clarksville PD could use a few more fine men like you Mitch, tell you what.”
“I don’t know about all that. It’s really just as simple as black and white. You can’t uphold one rule and not another. Just doesn’t make sense. I guess you could say I have a resolve made of steel though, turnin’ down fresh baked goods from Miss Carol.” Even Mitch had to laugh at how easily he could slip into the corny clichés when he was talking to the old man.
But Mitch didn’t say what both of the men might have been thinking at that moment: that if anything, Mitch was really the one in debt to Joe. Mitch looked to his left, out the giant window advertising Carol’s Coffee & Bakery, and further out into the small town’s even smaller main street. It was nothing but tranquility and serenity as he looked at the picturesque mom-and-pop grocery store across the street, the polar opposite of the churning turmoil going on in his head as he remembered “the incident.” He looked back to the right, as if the change of scenery might help him forget. He looked through the doorway he had entered only moments ago and could just see the edge of the window that advertised for Joe’s Drugstore. It was almost laughable, the strange combination of the two shops, but somehow Joe and Carol had made it a quite successful blend.
Mitch caught sight of the clock and realized he was moments away from being late for work. With a hasty goodbye to Joe, he made his way to the door and nearly collided with the teenage boy walking in. The boy—who had been walking with his head held quite low, eyes never leaving the ground—suddenly turned his eyes up to Mitch. He quickly looked back at the ground, walking on with a quick “s’cuse me sir.” The wide-eyed panic in the boy’s bright green eyes didn’t escape Mitch nor did it really concern him. He was used to getting a less than amicable reaction from teenagers; that stigma was just another part of the job. Just one more reason Mitch was grateful his own son was still a few years away from that hellish experience.
Stepping onto the sunlit street, Mitch sat his single coffee cup on top of the police cruiser and unlocked the door. He grabbed his cup and slid into the old vinyl seat, beginning to back out when suddenly it hit him—he had forgotten it was his turn to bring in coffee for the other guys at the station. He considered just showing up without the coffee, but quickly changed his mind. Walking empty handed into a room of armed, caffeine-deprived men could quickly turn into a volatile situation.
Mitch threw the car in park and hustled back over to Joe’s, calculating his chances of actually making it to work on time. Before his outstretched hand even touched the door he heard the crash and raised voices coming from inside the drugstore. Instinctively, Mitch loosened his weapon and put one hand on his radio. Even though it had been twenty years, his academy training kicked in: mentally prepare for the worst, but physically exude a calm, authoritative manner that suggests to any civilians, don’t worry, no danger here. With a steady hand Mitch opened the door, balanced on the balls of his feet, prepared to move in any direction at a second’s notice. When the green-eyed teenager tried to crash through Mitch and out to his freedom, the muscle memory automatically took over. Mitch’s capable hands used the boy’s momentum to propel him against the wall, swiftly twisting his arm behind his back as he grabbed his handcuffs from his waist. It took less than five seconds.
“Trying to steal drugs from behind the counter, huh? You don’t much look like an addict, son. Lookin’ to make some quick cash maybe?”
Mitch was sitting in the station’s dust-covered interrogation room with his new arrestee. The kid hadn’t so much as coughed from the moment Mitch pulled him off the wall at Joe’s and marched him out to the cruiser. The kid’s file (or lack thereof, really) was sitting on the table between them. He was Jack Pierce, 18, recent graduate of Clarksville High, and had absolutely no priors. Knowing how misleading an empty file can be, however, Mitch called around asking about the kid while he was being fingerprinted and escorted back to the interrogation room. Jack’s compliments came raining down, call after call. He worked two jobs. He mowed lawns for elderly neighbors. He took care of his 8-year-old brother Aiden after his derelict father left town and his mother passed away. Nothing like his worthless old man, they said. Jack was a good kid. If he was being perfectly honest with himself, Mitch knew that’s what his gut was telling him as well. He thought back to the moment he first saw Jack walking into Joe’s. S’cuse me sir. What kind of criminal says excuse me? Or sir? Hell, Mitch could count on one hand the number of teenage boys who had ever referred to him as “sir,” and none of them robbed drugstores.
“You gotta talk to me Jack. As much as I’d like to help you, there isn’t a thing I can do if I don’t know what was going on back there.”
“Officer I . . . I realize what I’ve done is wrong. Theft is no small matter and I understand there are serious consequences. Please, I’ll apologize and accept whatever punishment you deem necessary, but right now I really need to go. I promised Mrs. MacMillan I would pick up Aiden by 5:30.”
Mitch knew Mrs. MacMillan, the retired school teacher loved every child she ever met as if they were her own. She would be more than understanding if Jack were a few minutes late. He made a mental note, however, to call her himself if this interview didn’t suddenly start becoming much more productive. After all, Mitch couldn’t possibly let him walk out without seeing the reason behind this extreme outlier in Jack’s behavior. You don’t just hop behind the counter at a drugstore to pilfer its contents on a whim.
“I hear you’re quite the responsible one, Jack. The way you’re raising that brother of yours is admirable. What would he think about your criminal behavior today?”
The composure Jack had maintained since his arrest cracked just a bit. Mitch could see in the tightening of his eyes, he had finally struck a nerve. With piercing, unbroken eye contact Jack responded, “I see absolutely no need to inform him of any of this. Do you share any of your work stories with your son, Officer McGuire?”
Touché. Jack could dazzle Mitch with his witty responses all afternoon, but it would only strengthen his resolve to find the reason behind his actions. Mitch stood up and paced around the room for a moment, mentally taking a step back from the case before him. He was in dire need of an epiphany, because Jack certainly didn’t intend to be forthcoming with his answers here. He found himself thinking about his son, Alex. He was in fourth grade now and the best first baseman in his little league, following right in his old man’s footsteps. The smile that inevitably came to his face every time he thought about Alex began to fade as a less pleasant memory came to mind.
It was exactly two weeks ago when “the incident” happened. He had been sitting down to breakfast with his son when Alex abruptly started choking. The choking became more serious until Mitch realized he couldn’t breathe, his throat swelling up with every passing second. Mitch hadn’t panicked over any situation since he became a police officer. He knew the best actions and responses for all situations; it was black or it was white, that simple. On that day, however, Mitch was just another man running scared, with that dangerous look of desperation in his eyes. He grabbed Alex and went straight to Joe’s, hoping he had an answer, and more importantly, a cure. The nearest hospital was twenty miles away, and you didn’t have to be doctor to realize that math wasn’t going to add up. He sat Alex right on the counter and before he finished his story Joe was stabbing an epi pen into the young boy’s leg. Joe, a pharmacist for 30 years and a home-remedy miracle worker, knew an allergic reaction when he saw one. The affects of the medicine were immediate, quickly easing Alex’s inflamed throat back to its normal state. Mitch could barely control his tears of relief and gratitude, bear-hugging Joe before scooping up Alex to take him to the hospital. Mitch still couldn’t get over the shock of the diagnosis: a strawberry allergy. How something so seemingly small and innocent could have such a powerful affect on someone, he would never understand.
As Mitch felt the tears starting to well up again, threatening to pour over, the epiphany he had been waiting for arrived. He knew what led to acts of extreme desperation, what it took for someone to attempt something so reckless: family.
“You’re very protective of Aiden. That what this whole incident was about, Jack? Is Aiden sick?”
Jack straightened up a little more in his seat, raising his voice just a little as he said, “My brother is not sick. I take very good care of Aiden.”
Perhaps it was the frustration, but Mike found sarcasm coloring his tone as he retorted “Well then maybe you’re not the bright one I had you pegged to be, Jack.”
There was an expression of fury that clouded Jack’s face in a way that was almost animal, but the pain in those eyes was very human. “I work two jobs Officer McGuire. Those jobs pay the gas bill, the electric bill, the water bill, and usually the grocery bill. That’s it. When an emergency comes up there’s no cushion of savings to help me out.”
He stopped for a moment, his breathing becoming ragged. He took a few deep breaths to calm himself before continuing. When he continued he sounded more composed, but also more angry.
“Aiden has asthma. We thought maybe he had grown out of it since the attacks had stopped, so I stopped taking him to doctor visits for inhaler prescriptions I couldn’t afford. But then yesterday . . . have you ever watched someone have an asthma attack Officer?”
There was no angry sarcasm in Jack’s voice now, nothing but raw, genuine fear. Mitch had in fact never seen an asthma attack, but he didn’t doubt it was all that different from Alex’s incident. Aiden wasn’t much older than Alex either, giving Mitch a far more vivid mental picture of Jack’s account than he liked. He tried not to let the emotions betray him as Jack continued, hands clinched, and those green eyes full of desperation. Two weeks ago, Mitch might have been the mirror image of this kid.
“I thought it would kill me. My brother, whom I would give my life for, was standing there in our backyard, playing basketball one minute then choking, gasping, nearly dying, the next. And there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. We couldn’t afford a doctor visit, but there was no way in hell I was going to gamble my brother’s life with some wishful thinking that I could get the money sometime soon. I’m not proud of what I’ve done today but…it’s Aiden. I couldn’t risk losing him.”
Mitch had never seen so much anger and bitterness in a child. Because despite his very adult responsibilities and circumstances, at the end of the day that’s just what Jack was: a child. At first he thought he could relate to Jack’s story; after all, it was a stubborn pride and independence much similar to Jack’s that got Mitch through those rough years as a new police officer, husband, and father. Couldn’t squeeze in too many working hours around academy training, but goodness knows you’re counting every dime when you’re newly married and expecting. Now maybe Jack hadn’t raised his brother from infancy, but children certainly don’t get any cheaper with age. Mitch couldn’t help but respect Jack for the life he had managed to give Aiden, he’d jumped those hurdles before. Then again, maybe that wasn’t fair, his story was really nothing like Jack’s. He thought back to the time he was 18. God, was it really so long ago? He was the all-American boy next door: high school state champ baseball player with a college career in his sights, always found out-of-doors, if not behind a baseball bat then behind the wheel of a tractor on his father’s farm. He was a kid without a single care in the world. Of course, his dose of reality came soon enough, marrying his long-time sweetheart Jill at 27, entering the academy at 28, and becoming a full time officer and father by 29. Despite the days he was certain he’d drown in his swelling number of responsibilities, there was never a doubt in his mind that he had his family to pull him out if ever he was in need. But Jack had no support system like that to keep his head above water when the next wave threatened to drop. Jack was truly alone, except for Aiden.
As the overwhelming disparity between their lives hit him, Mitch put his hands on his forehead, slowly pushing them back through his hair. He could practically hear Jill telling him for the umpteenth time how bad that habit was for his already receding hairline. He tried to think of anything but the question that bothered him most: How do you punish someone whose intent was purely to save his 8-year-old brother’s life? Did that make Jack a criminal? Surely not. For the first time in his career, he was presented with an issue that didn’t fall within those black or white parameters he had depended on to be his guide.
As Jack sat there, chin held high and jaw clamped in a firm attempt at neutrality, Mike stared down at Jack’s folder, as if somehow he might glean the information from its nearly empty pages. He looked up at Jack, and realized he was looking at a boy who lived maybe 4 blocks from his own home, but might as well be looking at a boy who lived in another world. A world where something like forgetting to buy coffee wouldn’t even be considered a problem; a world that was most certainly not fair. In that moment Mike knew that somehow he was going to help this kid, and that certainly wouldn’t be by taking legal action and taking him away from the one person in this world he loved. He refused to believe that the system he had held such unshakable faith in would fail him now. The whole point of the system was to provide justice. Punishing a kid like Jack, the kind of kid that quite frankly, the world could use a few more of, wasn’t just. What he needed, what he deserved, was help.
Maybe he could call Joe, explain the situation, convince him to drop charges. Certainly Mitch would keep an eye on the boy now, and Joe was a good guy. He would be more than understanding. After all, wasn’t he the first person Mitch came to in his moment of need? With a simple explanation, there was little doubt in his mind that Joe would see his side.
As these thoughts came scrambling into his mind, Mitch opened his mouth to voice his intentions to Jack. Before the first word escaped him, however, the door to the interrogation room flew open, crashing into the cold gray wall. Mitch was on the verge of berating the officer for barging in so unprofessionally when he realized the man behind that badge didn’t belong to Clarksville PD. He was with the county.
“This the kid you caught stealing from the drugstore?” He asked this with jerky nod of his head, as if he were referring to an animal, not a scared kid. He had a manner that was cold, professional, and completely unrelenting.
“Actually, we’ve got this all worked out. It was a big misunderstanding. I promise you the entire matter is under—”
The invading officer had already grabbed Jack from the chair and was cuffing his hands behind his back with more force than Mitch thought necessary. We’re cracking down on drug-related crimes. Mitch heard these words as if submerged in water, floundering to get a grasp on the situation as it spiraled out of his control. They’re all reported to county now. Thank you for your work, we’ll take it from here.
As Mitch stood dumbfounded he made eye contact with Jack. There was no stony, stiff upper lip façade masking his face now. His eyes were glassy with the tears he was fighting not to shed, his teeth clamped together behind outstretched lips caught in a silent plea. No words were exchanged, just a single, determined nod from Mitch before Jack turned his head and allowed himself to be marched out of the room. Mitch McGuire was the man with a resolve of steel. He would help Jack, his sense of justice he had upheld his entire life, his promise to serve and protect, propelled him to do so.
He pulled his cell phone out from his pocket, dialing Jill as he grabbed his car keys. As the wife of a police officer, she was always prepared to help him as much as she could. He knew with little explanation she would be more than willing to pick up Aiden and invite him into their home for the night. She heard his request with no hesitation, knowing he would explain everything when he could. Mitch found himself grateful once again that day for the firm support system he had so long taken for granted. By the time he hung up with Jill he had reached his destination.
He ran the few steps from the car to the front door of Joe’s. Joe looked up from his cleaning, immediately reading the severity in Mitch’s expression. He sat the old man down and began his story. His time was limited, but with Joe’s help he could still save Jack.
When Mitch finished his story the old man stood up wordlessly and walked away. Mitch felt his body literally sink when he watched Jack’s only hope walk out of the room. How could Joe not see how good this kid was? How much he deserved a second chance? Recovering from his shock, Mitch turned to walk back to his car. A sudden jangle of the bells over the door in Carol’s echoed across the building as Joe returned, jacket and keys in hand.
“Well, come on now Mitch, we have to move faster than this to go save that young man.”
For a moment, all Mitch could do was stare blankly at the man as he hustled over to the front door to finish locking up. Joe was helping. He hadn’t failed Jack after all. As it all hit him at once he couldn’t resist bear-hugging the old man once again.
Joe patted his shoulder, comforting him but silently nudging him to continue out the door to the car.
“I told you Mitch, the world could do with a few more men like you.”