Long Bright River

When I pull up, I look at the cathedral closely for the first time in a while. It’s technically part of the 25th, so I have little reason to go past it on my patrol. It looks nothing like it did in its prime. Most of the windows are broken now. The front doors have Condemned signs on them. A bell tower rises from the eastern side of the church, but there’s no bell inside. I wonder who salvaged it.

I park and walk up the front steps. I try all the doors, but they’re locked. I circle around the side of the building and find one of the back doors ajar, a chain ineffectively roping it off. Quietly, I duck under it and enter.

* * *

    I hear a low murmuring as soon as I’m inside, and instinctively I stop to listen, to see if I can hear Kacey’s brassy hoarse cadence. But all of the voices I hear are unfamiliar to me. Nobody’s speaking loudly, and yet their words echo forcefully off the broken tile floor, off the walls and high ceilings. Whispered phrases float toward me through the cold.

It’s only. I said so. The other day. Until.

There are two smells here: one I recognize from years of churchgoing, the smell of the thin paper of holy books, the dusty velvet of the cushions that cover the kneelers. This is a warm smell, a good smell, the smell of a Christmas bazaar, a nativity pageant, the sign of the cross. The other is the distinct smell of a place overtaken by the transient, people with few resources and no other place to go. I know the second smell well. As neatly as pins, two sharp shafts of light from holes in the roof spear the main area of the church. The nave, it’s called. The word comes back to me quickly, along with a vision of Sister Josepha, my favorite grade school teacher, diagramming the parts of a church. Nave. Altar. Apse. Chapel. Baptistery. And my favorite: ambry. I remember them all.

The light in the church becomes diffuse, slowly. I begin to see people in the pews. They’re sitting there, patiently, as if waiting for a mass to begin. Some are sleeping. Some are moving. Some are standing. Some are sitting in the throne-like chairs reserved for the choir. There must be twenty or thirty people in this church. Maybe more.

The wail of a baby cuts through the place sharply, and everyone quiets. After a moment, their murmurs resume. I am distracted, momentarily, by wanting to find and remove this child, to take it into my arms and leave and never return.

A woman brushes past me on her way someplace, startling me.

—Watch yourself, the woman says, and I say, I’m sorry.

Then I say, Excuse me. May I ask you something?

The woman stops, her back to me, and pauses there for a moment before turning around.

—Have you seen Kacey? I say. Or Connie? Or Dock?

We’re still in the darkest part of the church, and I can barely make out this woman’s face. I can see her body, though. I see how she freezes when I say these names. She looks at me, assessing.

—Check upstairs, says the woman finally. And she points in the direction of a door that’s been taken off its hinges. It’s resting against a wall to the right of a dark threshold. Beyond it, I can vaguely make out a staircase.

* * *

As I climb the steps, the voices in the main room of the cathedral fade. I don’t know where I’m going, but the air gets colder as I move. I take out my phone and use it to illuminate the steps in front of me. Occasionally, I see small movements to the right and left of my feet. Mice, or roaches, or perhaps it’s just four years of accumulated dust.

The staircase is covered in decaying carpet, and it lets me move in silence. I count the steps as I go. Twenty. Forty. I pass a landing. I pass a locked door. I try it several times, and give it a nudge with my shoulder for good measure, but it doesn’t give way.

After sixty steps, faint light begins to enter the stairwell. A double door to my left has two openings at the top that I assume used to contain stained glass, as that’s what’s now lying shattered at my feet. On the other side of the doors, I hear voices.

I try the doorknob. It turns.

* * *

When I open it, as quietly as I can, the first person I see is Kacey.

She’s leaning against a waist-high railing, and the open expanse of the cathedral is behind her. She’s standing, I see, in the choir loft: presumably, they came up here for privacy.

Connor McClatchie is speaking to her. I see his face, in profile; he doesn’t seem to notice me. There’s another figure, too, a man, I think, who also has his back to me.

I catch my sister’s eye.

I know the other man is Eddie Lafferty before he turns around. I see his bald head, his stance, his height. I remember the slight stoop he had. Bad back, he told me.

I have my hand on my weapon. Before I can think, I draw it. I hold it before me.

—Hands, I say, loudly and clearly. Let me see your hands.

I recognize that I’m using my work voice, the particular cadence I borrowed from Kacey, from Paula, from all the girls I grew up with, a toughness that served them at school, at work, in life. And it occurs to me suddenly that it might not be natural to them, either. That they, too, may have adopted it, out of a different kind of necessity.

The two men turn toward me. Lafferty and McClatchie.

I can tell that it takes Lafferty a second to place me. I’m out of uniform and out of context. I am unshowered and wild-looking, my hair pulled back into a low knot. I’m tired and strained.

—Whoa, says Lafferty. He smiles, or tries to. Obediently, he raises his hands into the air. Is that Mickey? he says.

—Get your hands up, I say to McClatchie, who finally complies.

—Move away from her, I say to McClatchie, nodding toward Kacey.

I don’t like how close he’s standing, an arm’s length from my sister, who herself is leaning against a ledge. I don’t know how far the drop is to the floor of the nave, but I know I don’t want her going over. Below us, there is still the low murmur of footsteps and coughs and voices, nonsensical now, echoing indecipherably.

—Where to, says McClatchie, dryly. He’s even skinnier than the last time I saw him.

—Against that wall, I say, gesturing, with my head, to my right.

He walks to it. He leans back against it. Puts a foot up.

Eddie Lafferty is still smiling at me, sickly, as if racking his brain for some funny explanation, a reason we all came to be standing here together.

—You undercover too? is what he comes up with.

I say nothing. I don’t want to look him in the eye. I also don’t want to look away from him for an instant. I’m not sure whom to focus on: McClatchie or Lafferty. Kacey is standing behind the latter. And I realize, suddenly, that she is mouthing something to me.

Looking past Lafferty’s right ear, I squint at her. Kacey nods toward McClatchie. Her lips are moving, forming words I can’t parse. He’s something. I.

I’m still focused on Kacey’s mouth when I notice Lafferty’s body tense in that particular manner of a police officer about to give chase. And then he charges at me and knocks me to the ground. My weapon discharges once, shattering a section of ceiling, and then it goes skittering across the carpeted floor of the choir loft.

Below us, a woman screams, and then the cathedral goes silent.

Lafferty is standing over me, one foot on either side of my torso. McClatchie leaves his post and picks the gun up.

I lie very still. I’m panting. From the ground, I study the arched ceiling of the cathedral. Dimly, I can make out where the bullet found its mark. A little cloud of plaster dust descends slowly in a shaft of light. The ceiling, once painted celestial blue, is peeling now. A bird’s nest, I notice, occupies the nearest corner.

The shot is still echoing in my ears. Otherwise, the cathedral is silent as a tomb.

I picture my son. I wonder what will become of him, if today is the end for me. I think of the choices my own mother made—and realize, painfully, that I am not so different from her after all. It’s only the nature of our respective addictions that diverged: Hers was narcotic, clear-cut, defined. Mine is amorphous, but no less unhealthy. Something to do with self-righteousness, or self-perception, or pride.

Thomas, I think, uselessly. I’m so sorry I left you.

* * *

When a few long seconds have passed, I glance over at McClatchie. He’s clutching my weapon, the one he retrieved from the floor, but he’s not holding it right. It occurs to me, suddenly, that he has no idea what he’s doing. I’m considering how I might use this to my advantage when he suddenly says, to Lafferty, Kneel down.

Lafferty looks at him for a moment.

—You’re joking, he says.

—I’m not, says McClatchie. Kneel down.

With a certain amount of incredulity, Lafferty does so.

—Keep your hands in the air, says McClatchie.

He glances at me where I lie on the ground.

—Is that right? he says to me.