No Man’s Land

By Graham Robert Scott

When we round the corner, the boy in the purple shirt’s already running.

Gunny punches the gas, cutting Hatch off mid-sentence. Orphaned syllables crackle over the speakerphone. Hatch can be a funny guy, but I think maybe he’s funnier with his words chopped up and scattered to the airwaves. I can play Mad Libs in the caesura.

There are days, Gunny told me over burgers, back in my first week, when you’ll be minding your own business and someone will react to your presence. To the car, to the uniform. They’ll spin a U-turn, break into a run. Volunteer out of the blue to be pursued. When that happens, you thank the cop gods for the gift, and you don’t lose them.

Indigenous scrub and cactus grid a patch of earth to our left the shade of sandpaper, the entirety palisaded by rows of trees. The area has a formal name, botanical commons or something, but for all its needles, guys on the force call it the Prick Yard, and that’s where our jackrabbit goes, feet kicking up plumes of gravel from the garden path.

I call in the description. Lanky, long-legged, dark of skin. Purple shirt. Too young to buy cigarettes, old enough to try. The shirt had some kind of design on it, but he flew by too fast to catch it. My mind’s eye instead conjures my father, smudged with grease, working with me on the Mustang, and I’m not sure why, but this ghost of the mind is a sock to the gut. I only snap out of it when Gunny yanks us into a sharp left into an alley that borders the eastern edge of the Yard, snarled epithets drowned out by the growl of tires over alley asphalt as pocked as the Moon.

Through the zoetrope blur of windbreak trees, the boy appears to flit across the park, cougar quick, while we loop the long way. As I open my mouth to predict we’ll lose him, another blur catches my eye through the windbreak. A middle-aged woman, apparently after the boy on foot, mouth wide on a pink face, wide like she’s shouting, and maybe she is. But what I hear as I watch her mouth, like Bad Lip Reading, is Hatch, still on speakerphone.

Whatever he’s shouting sounds like a war cry.

Hatch lives for the chase. A regular at Gunny’s barbecues, he entertains fellow LEOs with beer-thickened tales of Border Patrol night hunts, of illegals thumped into the sand with the wheel-well of a Jeep. My sister likes to say that in every community, the fastest way to accumulate social currency is to be mean to the right people. In ours, Hatch is aggressively upwardly mobile. Gunny looks the other way, most of the time. Sure, he’s an asshole, Gunny reassured me one night before the drinking started, but he’s our asshole. I stared at Gunny until he realized what he said, and then we both laughed for far too long.

Hatch yells that he’s on the other side of the Yard and can see our rabbit heading his way.

I got ’em!, he shouts. I got ’em!

Hatch, I say. Stand down.

Maybe I’m not loud enough. Maybe Hatch doesn’t hear me.

We corner, hard left out of the alley, back tires peeling around—

—as a white Silverado rams through the chain at the Prick Yard’s service entrance and thumps the boy with its front left well. The kid flies, arms windmilling, legs at weird angles, onto a nest of cotton-top cactus.

As we get out, Hatch is doubled over outside his truck, laughing, thrumming with adrenaline.

The boy doesn’t move. He’s face down, velcroed head to toe across a bed of pink spines. An earbud dangles outside his right ear. One purple sleeve tents to a sharp point, a dark wet shape welling into the cloth.

You can thank me later, Hatch calls to Gunny. Here comes the victim.

I see her, too, shrieking our way at a dead sprint. I can’t make out the words, but her expression’s all wrong. Her shirt’s the same purple as the kid’s, and now I can make out the design. Stenciled on its front, a human figure runs through a ribbon, head back and arms flown wide. Below the figure: the name of a high school from one town over.

Oh, I think, and then I throw up.

At home, I avoid news channels and social media. It’s a local story at the moment, the union steward told me, but someone national is going to home in on it. The phone will start ringing, and people with microphones will ask why we didn’t use a siren, why the kid kept running, why the kid hopped a hedge if he was just training, why, why, why. Don’t answer, the steward said. Don’t even pick up the phone. No answers you give will help anyone. No, not even the kid. But I keep returning to the image on the shirt, and to the last frame of a movie Dad watched days before his mobilization, eight months before his interment, about Australian track runners in the trenches of the World War I, one of whom dies sprinting across No Man’s Land. The last frame finds him in the same pose as the runner on the shirt, but spouting bullet holes drilled by Turkish gunners. I spend hours trying to remember the name of the movie, until at last I have to look it up, and then I’m still awake, staring at the ceiling in the dark, mulling the word Gallipoli and how much it sounds like gallop, like gunfire, like tires over potholes, a perfect word that races by you and is then, in the smoke and the dust, forgotten.

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Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay