"For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, 'It might have been.'" ~John Greenleaf Whittier
Broken Ties, Broken Time
The days had all blurred together, and he had long since stopped trying to distinguish one from the last. Looking at the calendar meant nothing when you didn't know what day of the week it was, let alone what day of the month. It didn't matter, anyways. He no longer cared. Time had lost all meaning to Richard Stoker.
Rich's father had been a police officer, and as he grew up, Richard got very close to his dad's partner. The man was like the uncle that the boy had never had.
But things happen, and Stoker's partner was killed. Richard – seventeen at the time – had been devastated, and so angry at whatever ugly, alley-crawling, trash-sniffing, trigger-happy creep had crawled out of the sewer and killed his uncle-figure. One day, Rich just flew into a furious tirade before breaking down and crying – right in front of his dad.
Ferris Stoker had sighed deeply before reluctantly taking his son aside to chat in private. When Richard had calmed down some, still sniffling and wiping his nose with the back of his hand, Ferris had asked him a very important question.
"Son," Ferris began, "What do you think the police do?"
Richard quickly raised his head and gave his father a surprised stare that clearly stated, you're seriously asking me that question?
As the silence stretched on and it soon became evident to Rich that the question was not rhetorical and his father really was waiting for a response of some sort, he huffed and replied in a tone that implied that this should be insanely obvious, "The police catch the bad guys and lock them away."
"Sometimes that's true," Ferris responded. "But the more accurate answer is that we uphold the law.
"So?" Richard had prompted, not seeing any difference between the two. At least, not yet.
"So. Do you remember that shooting a few months back, where one of the targets was a kid, and his father was a policeman?"
"Yeah..." Richard drew out the word.
"The man was doing well at his job, but as soon as we learned that his son was one of the shooter's targets, we pulled him out. Do you know why?"
"Because he would have been emotionally compromised."
"That's right. And tell me what would have happened if he had stayed on the case?"
"His professionalism and unbiased perspective would've gone out the window. In a heartbeat, his instincts as a policeman would have been replaced by his instincts to be a dad, and he would've tried to protect his son. But all he would really be doing is getting in the way and more likely than not making the situation worse."
"Yes. Exactly. Now, let's pretend that that man had gone against orders and gotten involved. And let's say that he wanted to kill the person trying to kill his son. Would he be in the right to do so?"
"Well..." Rich began fidgeting, not liking this new line of harder questions. "He'd just be trying to protect his son..."
"So then what are the rest of us trying to do?"
"Um... protect the kid."
"That's right. The police who are on the case are already trying to make sure that the kid is safe. Then the father jumps in and threatens to kill the shooter. Would the father be in the right to kill the shooter, right there?"
"The answer is that he wouldn't, Rich."
"What? But the shooter is the bad guy!"
"Despite what you've read in books, to be a policeman is not about categorizing 'who's the good guy?' and 'who's the bad guy?'. Timmy stole Suzie's juice, therefore Timmy is the bad guy and should go to jail. Sometimes... sometimes it just isn't that simple."
"Because sometimes it's the good guy that makes a very bad mistake. Sometimes it's the good guy who gets hurt because of something that he did; not the other way around."
"I don't understand."
"Back to the shooting scenario. Do you think that the policeman's son is the only person we're trying to protect?"
"Well, he's not. We're trying to protect everyone, including the shooter. We don't want anyone getting hurt – instead, we want all this to end peacefully – so that means that we have to protect him as well."
"Protect him?! But he's the one that started this mess!"
"Perhaps. But do you think it wiser to have it end in more bloodshed? Namely, his own?"
"No, I guess not."
"Because all human life should be valued, right?"
"Even a killer's?"
When Ferris realized that his son was not going to reply to that, he leaned closer and asked another question.
"Why is there law?"
Richard frowned. "To... keep order?"
Ferris nodded. "And what would happen if we were to... oh, say, look the other way and let the father shoot the shooter? Why not; the man deserved it for killing all those other people beforehand. But that would be like saying that the law rested with the dead citizens. Since the shooter killed them, then it was okay for us to kill him. An eye for an eye, right?"
"...I guess so," Richard replied, even though he knew that it wasn't right.
"But if the law rested with the dead citizens, then shouldn't it rest for other things?"
Richard thought he could finally see where this weird train of questions was leading.
"He stole my apple," Ferris continued, "So I should steal his orange. Your mother robbed a bank, so the manager gets to take her family. The bank manager kills us, so your mother gets to massacre the employees of the bank. The families of the bank employees decide to start a war against this town – maybe even the state. And so on and so forth, for as far as you wanted it go."
"If the law were to rest," Richard offered, "Then there would be no order. So the policeman can't shoot the shooter. Even if the shooter kills his son? That doesn't make sense."
Ferris sighed for a second time that day. "We have a rule on the force, Rich," he stated grimly."And that is that if someone is seriously about to kill another person – pull the trigger, slit their throat, whatever – if we have a lock on the target, we are to shoot that person. The shooter aiming at the kid... or the emotionally compromised policeman aiming at the shooter."
Richard could feel a trembling begin in his fingers, which slowly spread up through his hands.
"What are you saying to me?"
"I am saying that the policeman's job is to maintain law and order at whatever cost. And sometimes, son, the law simply is not fair. But it is still our job to uphold it."
"Crossed the line, son. He was aiming his gun at an unarmed man and..."
"What did- what did that man do?"
"It doesn't matter what he did."
"What do you mean it doesn't matter?! Uncle Tom was mad at him; he had to have done something!"
For a third time, Ferris Stoker sighed, only this time it was done with sadness. "Professionalism, Richard. If I had to save a man that I didn't like, I would have to set my own personal feelings for him aside in order to do my job. It doesn't matter what the man did or didn't do. Uncle Tom crossed the line. It was his mistake. He was threatening to fire. I was in charge at the scene – I h-had to make a call; I-"
"You killed him." It was a statement, not a question.
"You killed Uncle Tom. You're partner, you're best friend! MY best friend! How could you do something so... so HORRIBLE?! You're a monster!"
He couldn't hear anymore after that. All he could hear was his own shouts, words and insults that he would not remember spouting by the next weekend.
When Rich had been a little boy, he had wanted nothing more than to follow in his father's footsteps and become a policeman. After that day, however, he never spoke to his father again.
He did, however, regularly listen in on Ferris's conversations with his wife, Judith – Richard's mother. At least he was still on speaking terms with her... barely.
"The cold hard truth of it all really hits when you see the replacement, sitting where your friend ought to be," Ferris would say, wiping away a stray tear. "Tom lives, he serves, he dies, and the job – his job – just keeps on going without him. The law has no sympathies, and Life never misses an opportunity to be a jerk."
Serves him right, Richard reasoned. The new partner was his own fault. Uncle Tom's death had been his fault. Screw the force. Rich wanted nothing to do with it. Not anymore.
But now, sitting in his study and staring at a framed picture of his newly-deceased son, Tyler, Richard thought that maybe, now, just a little part of him understood what Ferris had been trying to tell him.
"...And sometimes, son, the law simply is not fair..."
But didn't that apply to more than the law? Life was unfair. Death was unfair. And time... Time had no sympathies, either.
Tyler lived. Then he died. The child had only been eight. Time hadn't given Richard enough of itself to spend with the only child he would ever have. Time hadn't given Richard enough of itself to let him say good-bye. Time... just keeps on going. It doesn't slow down, and it doesn't speed up. Sometimes, humans perceive it to, but really, it doesn't. Never. It just. Keeps. Going. And it drags you right along with it, whether you want it to or not.
Richard was tired of time. He wanted it to stop. Maybe... maybe he couldn't control how time worked... but he could certainly control how much of it he had to take.
Richard stood up.
His decision was quick.
I have had enough.
The man grabbed his coat, his hat, his keys... and as he walked out into the entryway, he continued to cling to the framed photograph of Tyler.
No goodbyes, he decided. They still want time. Well guess what? It's all theirs. I'm through with it.
Opening the door, only one thing stopped him from striding immediately out of that house of gloom and despair...
"Where are you going?" a quiet voice called to him. Richard froze in his tracks.
His wife's son hadn't spoken to him since... that night. Truth be told, he had hardly spoken at all in the three month's time since the accident.
But as unusual it is for him to be speaking to me, heck for anyone to be speaking to me, Richard thought to himself, it must be pretty unusual for me to be going out, too. I haven't been outside, let alone driven for... a long time, I guess.
Glancing back but hardly looking at his stepson, the man finally responded, "I'm going to the park."
It was the first place that had popped into his head. He didn't really know where he was going, but it didn't really matter, now did it? Now that the kid had an answer, he wanted to leave.
But in the brief moment where Rich had turned his head, Michael had seen something; something in the man's eyes. It was a look he had never seen before, but somehow... he knew.
Richard didn't know how, but somehow the kid knew exactly what he was about to do. Mike didn't know it yet, but someday, he would be seeing this look a lot: the look of hopelessness; despair; defeat. The look that said, "Don't follow me, 'cause I'm not coming back."
"Dad," Mike whimpered.
Richard didn't respond, opting instead to simply walk away.
"Dad, no. Don't leave me!"
He didn't turn around.
There was a tugging of two fists curling tightly into the sleeve of his coat. "Go back inside, Michael."
"Richard?" A new voice, feminine, drifted out to him from the house.
He had to get away.
Tearing away from Mike's gripping hands, Richard strode to his car, unlocked the door, and climbed inside.
A long, heartbreaking wail sounded from the porch. He looked back, only once. Cecelia was there now, her hands on her now-youngest son's shoulders. She didn't try to stop him. She didn't try to comfort him. All she did was stand, watching her husband drive off in his car. She was confused. Michael wasn't.
And even though it was Tyler's beautiful face that he was staring down into not twenty minutes later, it was only Michael's tear-streaked face and his wife's confused gaze that filled his thoughts, making him almost regret his decision about saying goodbye.
… … …
It would be five hours later before the police arrived at their doorstep, informing the family of their most recent loss.