She holds the gun in both hands. She has no idea how it got there. She hears the steps on the cabin deck.
“Jo? It’s Matt. Can I come in?”
There’s a smell in the air. She likes the way it tickles her nose and makes her want to sneeze. A shred of memory is attached to that smell. It means she fired the gun. Her entire body hurts and her eyes feel swollen and crusty. That’s another vague memory. Pain like a spear.
It is still dark in the cabin but morning is not far away. A timid intention of light slinks through the curtains; it outlines the bedposts and the edge of the chest at the foot of the bed. The glow catches the barrel of the gun and she lowers it. The metal brushes her bare thigh and she shivers.
“I don’t know anybody named Matt.”
“That’s okay, Jo. I know you.”
“What do we do now?” Deputy Blunt is sweating. The sun is out and humidity raises from the grass, the trees, even the dirt road. It also raises in fragrant waves from Blunt’s uniform.
“Process the scene, take the neighbors’ statements, the usual,” Matt says.
This is anything but usual. Screams followed by shots – screams sharp enough and shots numerous enough to convince the reluctant denizens of this holler to call 911. Nobody wants anything to do with the cops in these backwoods. Matt crushes the butt of his cigarette under a boot heel. He makes accidental eye contact with a woman in a ratty pink robe. Her tired face is equal parts distrust and hungry curiosity. A gaggle of men loiters by a double wide. One of them yells, “Whadya got, Shurff? FBI most wanted?” It earns him a round of laughter from his buddies.
What Matt’s got is a badly beaten-up naked girl clutching an empty gun, and a man with his pants down and his belly full of holes. A clear case of assault and retribution.
But the girl is Jo Cernik and that makes it a situation.
“You’ll have every reporter in a hundred-mile radius on your back before midday,” Blunt says.
The deputy has moved swiftly from we to you, Matt notes. It goes with the territory. When you get your name on the door, you take the wheat with the chaff. Sheriff Matthew Gardiner, freshly elected. He’s glad his thick-headed predecessor isn’t in charge. In that bungler’s hands, Jo Cernik would be roadkill.
“You gonna talk to her?” Blunt snorts. “Try to, I mean.”
For the good that will do, Matt thinks. The dead dude is Otis Randall. He’s bad news and won’t be missed. His meth dealing competitors will cheer. One less piranha in the fish bowl.
“The cabin’s Jo’s,” Blunt says. “Invited him in. Knew what she was gettin’ into.”
It’s utter bullshit, but Blunt’s reaction is typical. There’ll be variations on the theme with comments wrapped in pretend do-gooder concern – the poor girl didn’t know what she was doing. It doesn’t make a difference. It’s still blaming the victim. Jo will be fucked sideways. Matt can’t let that happen. It’ll take work on his part because Jo can’t help. Her grasp on reality is non-existent. The words she says only make sense in the moment. She has no notion of truth or lie. Or time. A day, a second, are all the same to her. She wasn’t born that way. A twister did it when it destroyed the town’s school. Rescuers pulled her out of the rubble. She emerged from a coma with a faulty switch in her head; something was knocked off kilter that couldn’t be reset.
She still had enough sense to shoot that bastard Otis.
Matt trots to the ambulance where Jo sits, wrapped in a blanket. Somebody gave her a coffee. She’s holding the paper cup close to her nose. Her eyes are punched purple and she’s beautiful in the morning glow, unaware of the attention, and the perverted gaze of the onlookers. It pinches Matt’s heart.
She smiles. “The coffee is good.”
It’s sludge. “Do you know why I’m here?” Of course, she doesn’t.
“Many people at the house,” she says. “I should bake something. Be neighborly.”
Good Lord. “It’s a potluck, Jo. They brought stuff.” He sits on the bumper of the ambulance. “There was a man in the cabin.”
She looks at the crowd milling about. “One of them?”
“Would you like to get dressed, Jo?”
She looks at her bare legs sticking out of the blanket and blushes.
They walk to the cabin through the crowd of spectators and responders. One look at Matt and they all take a couple of steps back.
“She needs to be committed, Matt.”
The judge is a good man. He’s been in the job forever, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
“It would be like caging a bird,” Matt says. “Jo’s not dangerous.”
“She killed a man.”
“A rapist. He broke two ribs. She’s concussed. The gun is his. He must have drawn it on her and she managed to grab it. It’s self-defense, Judge. She’s incapable of premeditation. The most basic planning is out of bounds for her. No jury will ever convict her.”
“I’m not talking about a trial. Sensible people want her protected. You do.”
Protected. Locked up. Out of sight, out of mind. Matt remembers Jo standing in the cabin with the gun by her side in the striped light of the curtains. In that moment, she was everything he ever wanted to be. She was justice. The certainty, the clarity of it. You don’t lock that up. It’s as pointless as trying to stuff the sky in a box.
“I know what you think,” the judge says. “You’re out of your mind. How could you bear it? Starting the world afresh every single day.”
It’s close to defining eternity. Spending it with Jo makes Matt smile.
“You’re describing my job, Judge.”
M.E. Proctor is currently working on a series of contemporary detective novels. Her short stories have been published in The Willesden Herald, The Blue Nib, Bristol Noir, Fiction on the Web, The Bookends Review, Beat to a Pulp and others. Born in Brussels, she now lives in Livingston, Texas. She’s on Twitter: @MEProctor3.