Aurora Borealis

 

1. Long Island

 

Davalos wasn’t handcuffed yet. It bothered her.

 

It wasn’t as if he were resisting anything in any way. The search warrant lay, unread, on his kitchen table. He sat at the table, flanked by two uniforms, hands strangely curled and twitching in his lap, like the dying spasms of carp stranded on a riverbank. He was small and slight—five foot four in his stockinged feet, bespectacled, skin shiny and greasy in the florescent light, hair like thin mud, eyes like death.

 

Olivia was certain that she looked just as bad—two days of stealing sleep in the crib, tracking down vics, red herrings, tangential witnesses, uncooperative judges (to the point that she finally felt a sliver of sympathy for Novak, who had doggedly pursued them), and a diet of bad coffee, stale donuts, and cheap Chinese food would do that to a girl. She dragged a tired hand over her face. God, she thought. I haven’t even showered in almost two days. She craved nothing more than a hot bath, a clean bed, and uninterrupted sleep.

 

From her position, standing in the living room, she could watch Davalos. He was rocking slightly now, perhaps comforting himself with a song in his mind that no one else could—or would—ever hear.

 

Those eyes—so vacant, so colorless—met hers. Would it be easier, she thought, just to kill him now? Save the state a couple hundred thousand or whatever it would cost to prosecute him? She reasoned it out calmly. Take out my gun and shoot him. Just once. Right between those dead eyes. The unis wouldn’t care. Elliot would cover for me. They would be the only witnesses—Munch is upstairs, Warner’s in the basement…

 

“Liv.”

 

She shuddered. Elliot was standing behind her. He snapped off a pair of rubber gloves. They were done going over the room.

 

“Go see if Munch needs help.”

 

“And you?”

 

“I’m going into the basement,” he replied, grim.

 

Warner was already down there, standing at the ready as concrete was broken and holes were dug, waiting, like an angel of death, for the dead to reveal their secrets.

 

She was too tired to outmacho Elliot; it was a game they played with eager intensity, but one that they barely acknowledged. Who could go longer without sleep? Who could go longer without food? Who could stare at the corpse of a mutilated woman the longest, before looking away? Who could run the fastest? And now, who could bear to witness the bodies of prepubescent boys unearthed from a suburban tomb?

 

The Stoicism Sweepstakes, Alex had called this friendly rivalry. It was a very cop thing to do, and Alex always had a mild—and never disguised—distaste for the claustrophobic, us vs. them nature of police culture.

 

Here, you almost got through the day without thinking about her. No, that’s a lie. You thought of her earlier when arguing with Novak about the parameters of the search. You thought of her this afternoon when you saw a woman at 68th & Lex with blonde hair and glasses just like hers.  And you idly fantasized about her when you were trying to sleep in the crib this evening—the elegant lines of her neck, and where, upon that lovely throat, she liked to be kissed.

 

What the hell wouldn’t I give just to kiss you again?

 

God, I am tired. So tired.

 

Elliot was frowning. His voice lowered. “You gonna be okay?”

 

“Yeah.” It came out curter than she intended and she softened the blow with an apologetic wince.

 

He smiled uncertainly. “I’m buying you a pizza after this.”

 

She started up the stairs. “It’s 3 in the morning,” she complained.

 

“Come on, even on Long Island there’s gotta be a pizza joint open this late.”

 

Olivia only snorted derisively and climbed the steps. At the top of the stairs she stopped, realizing that it wasn’t pure physical exhaustion that niggled and pulled at her. It was everything. The job. The emptiness. The loss.

 

A mirror, old and flecked with lead, beckoned her with a reflection. She ignored it.

 

In the bare, bland bedroom Munch stacked videotapes from a large wooden cabinet into a box. When he glanced up and saw her standing in the doorway, he predictably began a monologue. “Why is it that the freaks—the really psychotic freaks—are so neat and organized? This guy has his tapes alphabetized, labeled, dated. It makes you wonder about people who have these character traits in the general population. Like librarians.”

Olivia picked up a tape. STEVEN OCTOBER 7 2000 the neatly typed label read. Her stomach roiled. “My mother wanted me to be a librarian,” she said softly. She cried when I told her I wanted to be a cop. I was adamant, and in the end I got my wish. But she got in the last word: “If I had known you’d throw your life away like this, I would’ve gone through with the abortion.”

 

Munch interrupted this unpleasant trip down memory lane. “You should have become one. I think they make better money than us. And I tell you, my friend, they’re actually very powerful. All that knowledge at your fingertips.” He stopped and, in his usual Munchian way, pursed his lips thoughtfully as he examined her. “You look—”

 

“—like shit,” Olivia finished. “Yeah, I know.”

 

“I wasn’t going to say that. You look tired—that’s what I was going to say. A beautiful woman never looks bad. Just like the Mona Lisa, with an ever-darkening patina of age, never looks bad.”

 

“I must be tired—I’m beginning to find you charming.”

 

He smiled. She handed him the last of the tapes from the cabinet. “I think we’re done up here,” he announced.

 

“Good.” She nodded and headed back downstairs.

 

Almost done. Her foot hit the landing of the stairs. Still the basement to deal with. The fucking basement. But then we’ll be done. She walked through the empty living room, into the kitchen. The uniforms and Davalos the dead-eyed perp all looked at her. I can sleep. Soon.

 

Then Davalos seized a gun—the unsecured service revolver from the belt of the officer to his right—and shot her.

 

The force of it sent her back against the refrigerator. The pain began as an icy pinprick in her stomach, and radiated in burning spasms through her torso. She slid gently to the ground, easily envisioning the bloody trail left upon the white background of the refrigerator. Even with eyes wide open, she saw nothing in front of her. There was nothing but the haze of pain. She remembered the lectures from the Academy—about getting shot, about what you should do when someone is wounded. Rarely did they talk about what you should do when you are the wounded. Professor Connolly did, though: Under duress, the body is swayed by the mind’s comforts. The body goes into shock at the loss of blood.

 

In the inevitable chaos that followed, her mind quietly registered pertinent facts. There was another gunshot. Two, in fact. They were probably shooting Davalos. Maybe killing him. There goes the case. Oh, now suddenly I’m concerned about the case.

 

Someone, one of the uniforms, screaming, Officer down!

 

Put pressure on the wound. It was Warner’s voice, both soothing and commanding. Hang on, honey. They’re coming.

 

And Elliot, of course, chanting and helpless: Jesus Christ Jesus Christ Jesus Christ oh Jesus Christ. Stroking her hair, touching her cheek. Don’t you die on me. Don’t you dare die on me.

 

Her mind let go of the present and slipped into the past, randomly plucking memories, as if flipping through a picture book to comfort a sick child. Here, look at this.

 

The house in Jersey, where she and her mother lived for two years. Small, but it had a backyard—a  real backyard that always seemed filled with sun and grass.

 

Jimmy standing in that same backyard, jumping up and down outside her bedroom window, wearing his new Converse One-Star sneakers and his favorite yellow madras shirt, yelling, I love you, Olivia!

 

A little orange ball. Soft, fitting perfectly into her hand.

 

So the mind lies to the body. Professor Connelly again. A man freezing to death in the open air will feel very warm. He will feel the sun upon his face.

 

Her mother sitting at the kitchen table. 8 a.m. in the morning. The bottle of gin is already half-empty.

 

Sticking a gun into a perp’s mouth. Elliot just barely managing to stop her. It had been days after her mother died.

 

Riding in the ridiculous, too-expensive Porsche Andy bought on a whim, speeding down a back road somewhere upstate, her laughter only encouraging him to go faster. Her hair lashed the wind.

 

A robber pressing the barrel of his gun into her head. Hearing a click. Nearly bursting into tears when she realized she wasn’t dead. Just having some fun with you, officer.  Then the blinding pain as he struck her with the handle of the revolver.

 

Elliot laughing on a bright winter morning, tufts of his breath dancing in the air.

 

The first db she’d ever seen. An eleven-year-old girl, face serene and beautiful, even in death. Then vomiting on her shoes.

 

Lauren Schecter kissing her behind the college library, in the rain.

 

A ski-lodge in Vermont: Alex staring into the fire, and the subtle, amazing ways that her eyes shifted color in the firelight—deep azure, smoky gray, silver, back to brilliant blue, a thousand movements of light flaring across the tiny screen of her irises, like the best movie ever, like an aurora borealis. There, at last, realizing she loved Alex as she had never loved anyone before. Having already permitted the comfort of memory, the mind lied further: Pain translated into warmth seeping throughout her body. The tiny kitchen window opened onto a vault of stars never visible in the city proper. Those stars bathed in night as she luxuriated in an ever-expanding pool of blood. They were not as brilliant as the aurora borealis, and never would be. She watched them, waiting to die.

 

 

 

2. North Dakota

 

Alex was sitting up in bed, blinking sleepily, and greedily gasping for air— as those who escape from nightmares commonly do.

 

She didn’t remember falling asleep, or even being asleep. All she remembered was the nightmare, and only two aspects of it: Blood and stars in the night sky.  Despite the frightening intensity of the dream, it relieved her to know she was still capable of them. Ever since she had left New York, she slept deep and dreamless, like a log. Dreaming instead encroached upon her waking life and muddied her memory. Days were quiet and blurred, like old photos. This was her real life now. Perhaps Alex Cabot was not real, and never had been. Perhaps the life of Alex Cabot had been a vastly complex dream carried out over the course of many long cold nights, like an opera—like Wagner’s Ring. Or perhaps like the Arabian Nights. 1001 New York Nights. She was her own Scheherazade. 

 

Stories were needed here in the middle of North Dakota, where there was nothing but silence, darkness, the cat grunting in protest and stretching against her leg.

 

The cat had been Hammond’s idea, strangely enough: You should get a pet, he had said. No, let me put it this way: You need a pet. The first day in town she found an animal shelter and adopted the cat; its previous owner had died. The cat was large and black; in sunlight, his fur gathered  dusty, velvety tones of deep browns and purples. She decided to call him Plum, even though the lady at the shelter said his name was Blackie. But he was starting over again, like her, and it seemed only fitting he should get a new name. She wondered if Plum remembered his previous life as she did hers.

 

Bare feet hit the chilly wooden floor. Plum growled as his favorite heat source left the bed.

 

She paused. “All right, then. Come with me.” She had always thought people who talked to animals were odd. Now she was one of them.

 

Trailing through the house with the cat lumbering behind her, she left lights on in her wake, through the bedroom, hall, bathroom, finally the kitchen. It was a  ranch house, too big for one person, particularly one person with scant possessions—the living room consisted of a recliner and a pile of books—and no discernable life. It was flat, one-level, drab. Something that Alex Cabot—the Boston Brahmin Brat who knew brownstones, penthouses, Victorian summer manses—would have sneered at. She reminded herself again that Alex was a fiction, a heroine with good breeding and money on her side, whose tragic flaw—shameless confidence bordering on arrogance—finally killed her.

 

In the kitchen the fluorescent light buzzed. Making tea was a calming ritual; strangely, the sharp noise of the kettle comforted her in a way that nothing else could these days. She didn’t even really plan on drinking the tea—what is it, orange pekoe or something like that?—but curling her hands around the blistering warmth of the mug gave her something to do.

 

Plum wove infinity signs around her bare legs. She waited for the inevitable nip at her ankles. Love was like that—teasingly treacherous. Unpredictable. That was something Alex the Heroine would think—or even say, perhaps, during a cocktail party, possibly within earshot of her moody lover. This had been the first blow to lay low our foolishly proud heroine: carrying on a clandestine, tempestuous affair with a brooding, emotionally scarred NYPD detective had not been on Alex’s List of Things to Do. Romantic, exciting, exhausting, frustrating, addictive, and finally leading into the abyss of love—yes. But not part of the plan. 

 

As if seeking divination of her fortune, she stared into the tea until it grew cold and a translucent layer of oil formed on top. Who am I?

 

It struck her that this gesture was stolen—the very position of her hands around the mug, thumbs beached upon its ceramic lip—how many times had she watched Olivia sitting with her large hands wrapped around a mug of coffee in the exact same fashion, eyelids at half-mast, savoring the morning’s silence before her day began its inevitable descent into chaos?

 

The sound of a strangled sob echoed too loudly in the quiet kitchen.

 

I wish I could have spent that last night with you. You asked. I knew what you were asking, even if Elliot and everyone else in the world didn’t. But I said no. I was damned and determined to dictate the laws and the terms of that thing between us, whatever the hell it was—too large, too important to be an affair, too fragile to be a relationship.

 

But if I had said yes to you that night, would that one word, that one syllable have entered the air and changed everything? Like in chaos theory—a single stroke of a butterfly’s wing causing a hurricane thousands of miles away? If I had said yes, would the men who were sent to kill me have taken a wrong turn down the wrong street—finding the wrong blonde outside the wrong bar? Would that single affirmation have set into motion an entire chain of events preserving my life—my real life, the one that you were in? If I had said yes, would I still be back in New York, arguing with you, breaking up with you, making up with you, as we always did?

 

She swiped at tears on her face, got up, poured the cold tea down the kitchen drain. From the window above the sink she saw stars, a skein of them across the sky, beautiful and out of reach. One of her neighbors mentioned yesterday that sometimes the aurora borealis could be seen in this part of the country. It was something to look forward to. She closed her eyes but for a moment, trying to picture the northern lights, and unexpectedly wondered if Olivia had ever seen something so wonderful, so strangely miraculous in her life.