“She says her daughter is in the car!” Officer Madero sprinted toward it.
“Madero!” Truman shouted. He took two steps after the other officer and halted, unable to think straight. What can I do? The flames at the front end of the car had multiplied and the amount of dense black smoke stunned him. Fire extinguisher. Truman dashed to his trunk, hoping he’d made the right decision.
The crowd let out a series of shouts.
Truman’s blood froze as he glanced back.
A young woman in the rear seat leaned her face against the car glass, her mouth wide open, her eyes terrified. Her face was pressed against the glass as if she couldn’t support herself, and Truman instantly knew her hands were tied behind her back. The mother’s shrieks intensified. The man holding her back met Truman’s gaze, questioning if he should let her run toward the car. Truman shook his head.
Madero grabbed the handle of the rear car door and tugged. “It’s locked!” she shouted. The black smoke billowed around her head and shoulders, briefly shrouding her.
A few of the crowd rushed forward to check the other doors.
Truman grabbed his extinguisher and glass puncher to break the window. With one in each hand, he tore toward the car. The flames intensified and people backed away, their hands and arms shielding their faces from the heat.
Madero didn’t leave. She hammered frantically at the window with her small flashlight. The woman in the car locked eyes with Truman, and he pumped his legs harder.
The car exploded.
An outline of Madero flashed in the blast as a wall of heat and power threw Truman backward.
His head hit the concrete.
Truman rubbed his hands under the icy water in the bathroom and grabbed a paper towel, then doused it under the stream and wiped it across his face.
The shudders stopped.
He stared at his reflection in the mirror. I should have pulled Madero away instead of getting the fire extinguisher. He could still see Madero’s silhouette in the bright light. And the face of the woman in the car. Over and over and over. His heart pounded in his chest.
Count five things you can touch.
He placed one hand on the cold metal spigot of the sink and let the stream run over his other hand, concentrating on the sensation of running water. Then he ran a wet hand over his spiky hair, touched the rough fabric of his sleeve, and deliberately banged a knee into the white sink, welcoming the small pain.
Count four things you can see.
He focused on the small scar on his chin. One. The other injuries to his face had healed and nearly vanished, but he knew where they lurked. A faint line here, a pale divot there. Two, three, four. His breathing slowed.
Count three things you can hear.
Scratchy music through the single ceiling speaker. The water in the sink. The murmur of voices from the bar.
Count two things you can smell.
He ended the mental recitation. By the end of the third step out of the five the psychiatrist had taught him for handling panic attacks, his heart rate had slowed and his sweats were gone. He took a quick inventory of his feelings. All calm; I’m grounded. He mentally stepped back and took an unemotional look at what else he’d locked away in his memories.
After two days, Officer Selena Madero had died from her burns.
The woman in the car had been tied up by her boyfriend and deliberately left in the burning car because she’d broken up with him. She’d been dead when the paramedics arrived.
Truman had been released from the hospital and had taken medical leave, spending time with the department’s psychiatrist. His vest had protected him from most of the flying, burning debris, but he still had two burns on his thighs. After a year they were still sensitive to the touch and itched and burned at random moments.
The victim’s moments of terror before the explosion ate at his gut and brain and heart.
He couldn’t comprehend the mind of a human who’d do that to another person. Especially a woman he’d once claimed to love.
The boyfriend was tried and sentenced. Truman avoided the trial except for his own brief testimony. He couldn’t have stomached the statements from the victim’s mother, who had pleaded with her daughter not to date the man, or the words from the medical examiner about the condition of her corpse.
If only I’d arrived sooner.
If only I hadn’t run for the fire extinguisher first.
Would it have mattered?
The psychiatrist had shown him how to get a handle on the survivor’s guilt, and techniques for managing the panic attacks, but he hadn’t been able to restore Truman’s faith in humankind. He’d been close to leaving law enforcement for good.
Then he’d received the call from Eagle’s Nest and his brain had seized the idea, as if someone had thrown him a lifeline. A small town where everyone knew everyone else. A town where people looked out for their neighbors and didn’t set their significant others on fire.
It became a beacon of change in his mind. A city where he wouldn’t deal with gangs or excessive homelessness.
A town where he could be a person, not a uniform, who helped.
“Shitty people are everywhere,” the psychiatrist had told Truman when they’d discussed his job offer. “Small towns, big cities, African villages. You can’t run away from it.”
Truman had known his doctor was right, but a quick visit to the town of Eagle’s Nest, where he’d spent those high school summers, rekindled a fire that had been doused when that car exploded. He’d felt compelled to follow that new energy and hold tight to its source. Since the explosion he’d been lost, drifting through life, searching for something that made him feel alive.
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