A shot rang out in the distance.
Damien cocked his head, trying to track its source. He instinctively reached for his pistol, waiting for the echo to bring trouble. Cupping his earpiece, he listened and waited, but heard nothing urgent in the crackle of police chatter. A domestic dispute. A car accident. A traffic stop. That was it.
Damien was on edge.
The summer heat was lingering into fall, and the daylight, along with his patience, was growing shorter each day. He hadn’t had enough time on the job to identify the sound and not enough false alarms to brush it off. Maybe all first-year cops were like this, but knowing that didn’t make him feel any better. He expected more from himself. The uniform meant something, and he wasn’t living up to wearing it.
“Hey, you with me?” Raquel asked.
She stood in the middle of the clothing store, her belly bulging with new life. It was her natural curves and bright eyes that first caught his attention years earlier, but it was her latest blossoming that made her the sexiest thing he’d ever seen. She complained about her new stretch marks, worried about the scars that might follow the birth of their first child, but for Damien, they were her battle wounds and made her more attractive.
“You’re off the clock,” she said. “I need you here, helping me.”
“I’m here, I’m here,” Damien said, scanning rows of miniature pink outfits hanging on tiny plastic hangers. “Fully armed in case any of these onesies make a move.”
“Don’t be a smart ass,” she said with a laugh. “So you want me to leave?”
“I want you to take this seriously.”
“Babe, we’re buying clothes our kid will eat, sleep, and shit in for three months. How serious do you want me to be?”
He felt out of place, maneuvering through the baby aisle in his police uniform, but work hours for a new cop were unforgiving. He had to pick his spots.
“Are you sure we should go all in with pink?” he asked. “What if the doc is wrong? What if baby Nicole ends up being Nicholas?”
“That’s what receipts are for,” she said. “My mami said the last trimester is the hardest. Apparently, I’ll mutate into a nesting fool, so I want to get a head start.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that, babe,” Damien said. “You’ve been mutating since day one.”
Smirking, Raquel shook her head. “Why did I marry you?”
“The money. I didn’t have any.”
“Can you be serious for one minute?” she asked.
“That’s a long time, but I’ll give it a shot.” She kissed him on the cheek.
“I have faith in you,” she whispered, then gave him a playful slap. “Now, focus.”
“I’m a onesie laser, babe. Let’s do this.”
Giggling, she turned to the row of clothes. He liked making her smile. It was a small victory. She was the one who worried about bills, futures, and pink onesies.
Damien took each day as it came. Seemed like a good approach for a cop. No sense thinking too far down the road when his next day on duty could be his last. He wasn’t morbid about it. It was the simple truth. He wore a gun for a living. That wasn’t for show. Bad people liked doing bad things, and his job was to stop them or find and arrest them when they did.
Raquel said something—about her being the responsible one when he was the one who carried a weapon—but Damien didn’t have a quick comeback. He was distracted by his reflection in the store window. The bright blue uniform looked as uncomfortable as it felt.
Still, he wore it well.
After making his way through the aisle to the front of the store, he pushed the glass door open and peered out into the heat. Hayeston’s Main Street was quiet. Across the way, a homeless man rummaged through the garbage, probably searching for aluminum cans to turn in for a couple of dollars. To Damien’s right, a mother pushing her baby in a stroller disappeared around the corner.
Everything was normal, yet nothing felt right.
“I love that smell,” a joyful voice behind him said.
Benita, the store’s owner, inhaled the warm air wafting in.
“The boys are squeezing again today,” she said, her bright smile showcased by her darker skin. “My dad worked at that citrus plant for thirty years before he passed. Came home smelling like Navels and Hamlins, Grapefruit and Ambersweet. I loved it. Now, every time I take in the scents of freshly squeezed citrus, I think of that silly old man and his boisterous laugh.”
“It makes me think of breakfast,” Damien said, closing the door and welcoming the cooler air. “I like your memo‐ ries better.”
“You’re one of the new ones, aren’t you?” she said, pointing to his badge. “The next generation?”
“Yeah. I’m lucky. When the attorney general extended our jurisdiction to help the smaller towns nearby, fifteen on- duty cops became thirty. I jumped at the chance to be one.”
“Good,” she said. “We need new blood. We’ve never had more than a couple of good cops around here. Even less, back in the day.”
“I know,” Damien said with a sincerity that came from experience. “I promise you, our recruiting class is top notch. We love this town as much as you do. And everyone in it.”
“That would be a nice change.”
Hayeston had its faults, more so lately. Bigger-city prob‐ lems had begun to seep into this little hamlet. Divides between races and classes were growing each year, causing tears in the small town’s fabric to fray.
Wearing a police uniform didn’t mean what it did to him when he was a child. Cops used to be the good guys. Now, too many people were pointing fingers instead of solving problems. Frustration was growing on all sides. Despite the friction, though, Damien believed there was still time to make things right.
Hayeston could become the haven he’d envisioned for his wife and child.
“What do you think of this?” Raquel said, skirting around the aisle. Her eyes beamed with motherly joy as she held up a pink onesie with a picture of a kitten on the front.
“I think dogs will want to eat my child,” he said. “I know you hate cats,” she said.
“Hate is a pretty strong word.” “That’s not a denial,” she said.
“It’s a clarification,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m sure Nicole or Nicholas will love it as much as you do.”
“Will you stop with the Nicholas thing? You’re making me wonder if we’re wasting our time.”
He kissed her on the forehead. “Sorry honey,” he said. “It’s just… being in this place is making the whole thing real. We’re gonna have a baby soon. I’m gonna be a dad to a little girl, and it’s kind of freaking me out. One day, she’s going to grow up into a beautiful young woman, like you. The boys will look at her the way I do you. Then I’ll have to shoot them. And who wants that?”
Raquel laughed. “Or we could raise her to demand boys respect her.”
“Plus, I could teach her self-defense, in case any of her boyfriends try something. That way, she can shoot them.”
“I think there are other ways to raise our daughter that don’t involve gunplay.”
“True, but where’s the fun in that?” he asked.
She squeezed his hand. “You’re going to be a great dad. You’ll do a wonderful job protecting her from all the jerks in the world.”
“Excluding family, you mean.” “Of course.”
They shared a smile. Neither of their families were perfect. Far from it.
Raquel’s was large and loud. Her Puerto Rican heritage filled her home with laughter and music, dancing and food. The men in her family were pumped with enough machismo to fill a 1980’s action flick. They were passionate people, and that was fine with Damien. When Raquel loved, she loved at one-hundred percent.
He wished he could return her affections with the same intensity, but his upbringing had been different.
His father was a trucker, gone on the road most days. When he’d been home, silence filled their time more than encouragement and his temper visited their house too often. There were many things Damien had wanted to be when he grew up, but for reasons he wouldn’t verbalize, his father wasn’t one of them.
His mother was caring, but often lonely, finding escape in her ever-growing pile of romance novels. And Damien’s brother, Jacob, marched to the beat of a different drummer. Saw the world in ways Damien couldn’t understand.
Damien knew his family loved each other in a dysfunc‐ tional sort of way. It was a quiet love. One of deeds more than words. A firm handshake over a hug. It was all he knew. It was another reason Raquel was such a breath of fresh air.
Damien felt a tug on his pant leg. A cute boy, maybe four years old, stared up at him.
“Is that a real gun?” he asked, pointing at Damien’s holstered weapon.
“Yes, it is,” Damien said. “Mama said guns are bad.” “They can be.”
“But cops are good.”
Damien smiled. “They can be.”
“My uncle doesn’t like cops. Says they’re rook-it.” “Rook-it?” Damien asked, puzzled.
“You know, do bad things ‘cause they can.” “Oh, crooked.”
Bemused, Damien bent to the boy’s level. “Well, I’m not one of those crooked cops. I’m one of the good guys.”
“Really?” the boy asked. “Then can I play with your gun?”
The boy crossed his arms, pouting. “Rook-it.”
“They’re not toys,” Damien said. “Your mom is right about that. Guns are dangerous. But when you get a little older, if you want to learn how to use one properly, and your mom will let you, I’ll teach you myself.”
“You promise?” the boy asked with a hopeful lilt. “I promise.”
“Until then, you’ll protect me from the bad guys?” Damien tapped his badge. “That’s why I wear this.”
He had to be on his best behavior, on and off the clock. This might have been the boy’s first face-to-face experience with someone wearing the uniform. Damien couldn’t allow himself to have a bad day. Not in public. It was the price that came with the shield, but a burden he was willing to carry.
One person at a time, Damien thought.
The anger between the police and some of the towns‐ folk had started the same way, one person at a time. It took years for the schism to grow to where an innocent child was being taught cops were the enemy. It’d take the same concerted effort to undo the damage.
One person at a time.
“Are you finding everything okay?” Benita asked, maneuvering around a row of baby cribs. “If you’re not finding what you need, you tell me and I’ll get it for you.”
“Mama, he’s got a gun,” the boy said.
“I know, baby. He’s supposed to have one.” “He’s one of the good guys.”
The little boy trotted toward the front of the store while Benita scanned Raquel’s shopping cart full of clothes.
“It looks like you’re finding everything you need after all,” Benita said. “I’m happy you’re buying so much from the store, but you do realize these’ll only fit your baby for a short time, right?”
“She’s caught up in the moment,” Damien said, fighting a smile.
“What can I say?” Raquel said. “I love your designs.” “That’s nice to hear,” Benita said. “When my boy Billy
was born, he was the light of my life. Things were different then. Hard. My husband had just left me. I was broke. Unemployed. On food stamps. I thought nothing good could come from this world. But the first time I held my boy in my arms, felt his breath against my cheek, I knew he was a miracle. No matter what the world threw at me, he was proof that wonderful things could come during our darkest times. I wanted to give him the world.
“When he was just a wee little one, I couldn’t find any baby clothes that matched my style at the stores. They were all so generic. I wanted something with a little flair, a little panache. So, I saved up what I could and opened this place. Found some local designers, and here we are now. Four years of sleeping on my uncle’s couch with Billy, microwave dinners, and a lot of sacrifice. Four long, hard years. But look at us today. Open with two wonderful customers and their loaded cart of clothes, who are expecting their own little miracle.”
Benita surveyed her small shop, her pride barely contained.
“All days are good in this place,” she said. Raquel smiled. “I can’t argue with you there.”
“10-24,” a voice screeched in Damien’s earpiece. “I
need assistance at Barrows and Ninth Street.” He recognized the voice. It was Ted’s.
“Suspect is down, bleeding. Send paramedics. And police backup. The spectators are getting restless.”
Barrows and Ninth, Damien thought. That’s just a few
blocks from here.
Ted’s distress call surprised him. His best friend had grown up a few miles off Barrows Ave. He had old ties there. Friends. Relatives. Yet, even that didn’t seem to help the growing antipathy toward a cop in uniform.
“I repeat,” Ted said, his urgent plea nearly drowned out by screaming voices. “Things are getting out of hand.”
“Ted’s in trouble,” Damien said. “I have to go.”
A wave of grumbling approached the store like a thun‐ derstorm, bringing with it scattered chants and angered cries. Slow. Steady. Menacing. New pleas called for justice while the thunder of discontent rumbled through the streets.
“Mama, they’re coming,” Billy cried. “They’re coming!” His little finger pointed toward the front window as the glass shattered, shards raining on him like razor-sharp snowflakes.