Reform School: A Christmas Story

Kate Flora: Each year, I write a Christmas story for you. Here is one for 2020:

Billy Carson was the original snot-faced kid. The kind of kid who had people muttering “reform school.” Scrawny, dirty, ragged, and into mischief as if his life depended on it. Given the fecklessness of Billy’s family, Sergeant Donahue thought it probably did. The kid didn’t steal for the hell of it. He stole to survive and for his little brother and sister.

Whatever his motives, Billy was the scourge of the trailer park where he lived. He would grab anything that wasn’t secured. It didn’t matter if it was a bag of returnable bottles Tom Sherman planned to cash in to get a Christmas present for his wife, or the loaf of banana bread old Mrs. Andersen had baked for her son, who said he was finally coming to visit. If he could get his grubby hands on it, Billy would.

Donahue and Billy would make deals: if Billy didn’t get into trouble for a week, the cop would bring him a bag of treats. He could eat them himself or share them with his friends. It pleased the old cop that Billy always shared. Even used the prospect of treats to keep the other kids in line. A bag or two of treats was a small price to pay for some neighborhood peace.

But Christmas was coming, the hardest season for families with nothing.

The holiday season, when you’re poor, can be a constant laceration, a reminder that while others are shopping and wrapping, baking and going to gatherings, you’ve got nothing and no one wants you around. Now that the season starts before Halloween, the scourging of spirit and hope, and the temptation to get something for one’s self, is longer and harder. That meant it was longer and harder for the cops as well. Forget the current debate about whether they were warriors or guardians or both, it was the cops who got the calls when the have-nots decided to help themselves to what the haves had, or to take out their frustration and despair on the people around them.

Like heat building up in a fire, the closer they got to Christmas, the more those who had nothing and no prospects felt what losers they were, and the closer they got to exploding. During those last few weeks leading up to the big day, Donahue often felt more like a fireman than a cop, though the fires he kept putting out were humans combusting in bars or parking lots by the package store, or in their homes with those commonly referred to as “loved ones.” Alcohol and drug use surged. He was distributing Narcan like Santa giving out candy canes.

Donahue was thinking about Billy as he started his shift. He hadn’t heard from the boy in a while, something he couldn’t consider good news. Probably time to swing by and see if everything was okay. If he could find the time. This particular day was a bitch right from the get go. He’d barely rolled out of the parking lot when a man staggered up to his car, leaned against it, smearing the window with a dirty fist, and when Donahue rolled the window down, leaned in with a breath you could have lit with a match to report that Shelley, over there in the park, was dead or dying.

Shelley was indeed dead, which was what falling into intoxicated sleep in a public park in a Maine winter could do. No help he could offer except to cover her with the blanket from his trunk while he called the necessary people to the scene, then stood there getting cold while he fought to keep grief and regret off his face. Hell of a way to start the day. He knew her. He’d been pulling her off the streets for years. Get her into a shelter. Into a rehab program. It would work for a while and then the whole thing would start again. Cops struggled to hold on to their compassion when helping just seemed like a game of Whack a Mole.

He’d left the crowd at the park behind to answer a call about a domestic. Got a rookie for backup who’d be with him for the rest of the day, which likely meant he’d have to watch his own back, if not the kid’s as well. There wasn’t a song that went “Tis the season to be violent,” but there should be.

The woman was huddling in a kitchen chair, bruised and bloody, spilled food and broken crockery on the floor. Her husband was destroying the living room furniture. Somewhere in the house, a baby wailed. Donahue could see that before this trouble, the house had been nice and neat. Husband was arrested with some help from the rookie, his wild-eyed, profane self placed in the back seat of the patrol car while they sorted out the rest of the mess.

Donahue sent the rookie to comfort the woman and get her story while he went to find the baby.

He figured it was about six months old, a red-faced little dumpling kicking its feet in frustration. When Donahue picked it up, he understood why. The kid was sodden. Way overdue for a change. He peeled off the wet clothes, washed the little guy in the bathroom sink, and dressed him. Then he carried his slightly perplexed little bundle to the kitchen and held the baby out to the mother. “He’s hungry.”

She actually said, “I can’t. I’m too upset right now,” which made the rookie’s eyebrows raise. He’d learn how trauma could paralyze people and how to deal with that. Something you learned on the job, not at the academy. Donahue rooted around in the kitchen until he found a bottle and some formula. The rookie was looking at him funny, a look he read as, “Hey. We’re here because we’re cops stopping a bad guy. Why are you feeding a baby?”

“Listen,” Donahue said, “this is part of the job. Serve and protect, right, even if that means taking care of a wet, hungry infant.” He passed the baby to the rookie and handed him the bottle. Nodded at the nearly catatonic woman in the chair. “You get her story?”

Rookie, holding the baby like it was a bomb about to explode, nodded. “They ran out of beer and that made the husband unhappy.”

Donahue wondered how it was that some people never grew up.

Eventually, the battered woman gave them the name of a friend, the friend was called, and woman and child departed. Before she left, Donahue took some pictures of her, and then recorded the damage the husband had done to the rest of the house. Another thing he wondered about, even though he’d seen it enough to know it was common: why destroy the things you need to live, like your furniture, dishes, and TV? Common sense said a new TV cost a lot more than six pack.

As soon as they finished, as though dispatch knew they were free, another call came in. Shoplifting.

Donahue could have written the script for this day. Domestic, shop lifting, and breaking and entering, couple guys brawling, maybe another domestic, a bad check or two, a lost pet, an elderly person worried about one of those social security scam calls. All except for Shelley. He’d always hoped one of the fixes would take, a Dumbo’s feather that would let her fly.

The shoplifting, at a local liquor store, was utterly ironic. Two of Shelley’s drinking buddies had decided they needed a bottle to drink in her honor, never mind booze was why she died. Lacking cash, they resorted to theft. Both men were polite. Contrite and apologetic. Both,  Donahue knew, were staggered by sadness.

As he let them go with a stern warning, Donahue wondered if they’d actually hoped to go to jail. In the winter, there were those who periodically got themselves arrested to secure a warm place to sleep and three meals a day.

“Why’d you let ‘em go?” the rookie asked as they left the store.

Donahue shrugged. How could he explain that the attempted theft was part of genuine bereavement? What that bottle represented? The men wanted to drink to their lost friend and to numb the realization that it could just as easily have been one of them. How could he explain to this newly minted kid that the wings of the angel of death had brushed these men?

He’d had to step down hard on the temptation to pay for that bottle and let them go. But he didn’t want to get called to another scene like this morning’s again tomorrow. Besides, he had a million examples from the job of how futile it was to support an addiction, to be an enabler, even if it was tempting in the moment.

By two in the afternoon, he was starving. He and the rookie had spent the last forty minutes tromping around a snowy neighborhood searching for a lost dog only to have dispatch call and say the dog had come home. Lonely elders and their lost dogs were a staple of the season. He was ready to sit in a warm place, thaw his feet, and eat an oversized breakfast for lunch. The rookie turned up his nose at Donahue’s choice, a somewhat out-of-the-way diner that didn’t look promising from the outside.

“It’s a secret,” he’d said to the sneer on the kid’s face. “You’ll see.”

Rookie did see. He even joined Donahue in the lumberman’s special after they’d passed several booths with smiling customers tucking in. It was big, it was cheap, and it was delicious.

The waitress faithfully refilled Donahue’s cup and brought him a small wrapped package when he was done. Because he wasn’t alone, she brought one for the rookie, too. “Raspberry muffins, today. Marion says she hopes you like them.”

The rookie looked at him. “We’re not supposed to take free food,” he said. Being newly out of the academy, he wasn’t yet conversant with the ways of the world. Mostly they didn’t accept gifts but there were exceptions.

“She’s saying thank you, is all,” Donahue said.

“For what? Us eating lunch?”

Donahue shook his head. “For saving her husband’s life. We don’t take her muffins, she’ll be hurt. It’s her way of showing gratitude. Sometimes, as you’ll learn, too strict adherence to the rules gets in the way of being human and letting others be human.”

The rookie was still going to leave his muffin behind, so Donahue took it. He knew it would be delicious. Today he didn’t feel like telling the story of a man without a life jacket tipping out of a kayak into icy water, and needed to be rescued by a cop who dove in, gun, uniform, and all, to fish him out. He figured the rookie would call the man stupid, a rookie mistake, because people were complicated and sometimes got distracted by emergencies and didn’t make the best decisions. Plus there was a beloved old dog involved. The very wet cop had saved the dog, too, and despite being frozen to the bone, called it a good day.

Next up, dispatch sent him to the school where he took a report about the Carson children once again coming to school bruised, dirty, and hungry. The principal said she’d called child protection so often she had them on speed dial but figured they probably had her on speed erase, since nothing ever changed. She’d sighed, a sigh of the frustration they both shared. “That Billy. He’s trying to be a grownup and taking care of his brother and sister but he’s going about it in the worst way. Kid’s already got a bad reputation and he’s only ten. The gym teacher calls him ‘reform school’ instead of Billy.”

“I’ll stop in, see if I can get the parents back in line.”

The looks they exchanged said they both believed it would be a futile visit. It wouldn’t be Donahue’s first visit. Or second. Or third.

It was futile. There were no parents at home, just Billy left to look after his siblings. He reluctantly let Donahue in. They knew each other well. Donahue might have been trying to get Billy out of scrapes and onto the straight and narrow for years, but what was the straight and narrow for a child forced to parent his younger siblings? From Billy’s point of view, he was just doing what was necessary.

The rookie stood back, shocked at the state of the place. He insisted they had to call child protection at once. As though he hadn’t been at the school with Donahue and heard how unresponsive they were. Hadn’t heard the principal’s lament. Didn’t understand that as long as the kids had a roof, and what passed for an intact family, they weren’t a high priority.  He’d get used to it. Poverty was the number one occupation around here, with drugs and alcohol use a close second. 

Donahue had a chat with Billy, just catching up. Lately, Billy had been doing a pretty good job of staying out of trouble. But there was no food in the house and the heat was so low it could barely be called heat. Before they left, Donahue turned up the heat, then made a phone call to the food bank and arranged to swing by and get some groceries. People were supposed to wait in line and show up on particular days, but no ten-year-old kid could do that. Anyway, they knew Donahue and were happy to help out.

They answered a quick call for a woman who thought someone was in her house. It was her cat, locked in a closet. Then they got the groceries and delivered them to the Carson trailer. By that time, Donahue was toast. He couldn’t wait to get his boots off and put his feet up. The rookie, of course, was still raring to go.

With the end of his shift in sight, they asked if Donahue could work a double. He had worked a lot of doubles lately. The trouble with being single, unburdened by family and responsibilities. No one at home to complain if he worked too much, came in late, or was just too tired to make conversation. He didn’t even have a cat or dog at home, waiting to be fed.

He said he’d do a half shift. He was too tired for another eight hours of crises and people’s bad acts.

It was a long four hours. He got his knees soaked in the slush, helping an elderly man change a tire. He nabbed a guy who’d left the diner without paying while the waitress was in the kitchen. Guy had a shiny new truck and an expensive parka but figured it was okay to stiff a waitress. Donahue and the rookie were nearby, so the asshole didn’t get far. They took him back to the diner, made him pay. Apologize to the waitress. Leave a generous tip.

“You’ll find,” he told the rookie as the jerk was leaving, “that the more people have the less they tip. They’ve got enough, so they don’t think it matters.” He let that settle in. “When your tips pay for your food, rent, and car repairs, it matters a lot.”

On the way back to clock out, they passed a woman walking on the opposite side of the road. It was dark now, and cold, and she was carrying two heavy bags of groceries.

“You see this, you stop,” Donahue told the rookie. “You see an older person slowly crossing the road, you stop. Being kind is the most important part of protect and serve.” Kid probably thought lights and sirens and making arrests were most important. He’d learn.

Soon, he had the woman in the back, the heat jacked up, and they were turning around.

“Hey,” the rookie said. “Our shift is over. We’re done.”

“We’re done when this lady is safely back home and a nice young cop has carried her groceries for her.”

And they were.

He clocked out and drove to the grocery store. His refrigerator didn’t look much better than the one at Billy’s house. He got staples—bread, milk, eggs, cheese, cereal—along with a rotisserie chicken and a bag of candy he planned to drop off at the Carson’s tomorrow. The woman who checked him out was pleasant and shy. She checked him out often and he realized he’d never learned her last name or much about her.

His street was bright with holiday lights. A nice neighborhood. His neighbors said they felt safe because he lived there. He often thought he felt safe because they were decent, hard-working people he never had to arrest.

By the time he got to his chilly, dark house, he felt like lubricating his spirits like those would-be shoplifters this morning. He knew, though, that letting discipline slip and taking refuge in substances was the way to hell. He saw the evidence of that every day. But constant exposure to humanity’s dark side was corroding him until he was as rusty as an old can, his soul as full of holes. A quarter of a century of dealing with people’s worst can do that. He’d come into the job because he wanted to help people. He’d wanted to make a difference. This many years in, he thought he was more like the boy with his fingers in the dike. He’d run out of fingers. Couldn’t see how what he did was making that difference.

In the long run, were clean, dry babies and ladies and their groceries safely delivered enough?

A long ago brief marriage and failure to have kids had left him pretty much alone in the world. His sister lived far away and wasn’t the greatest communicator. His parents were gone. Even his dog was dead.

Crap! The last thing Donahue needed was to sink into a “poor me” funk. He turned on more lights so the place didn’t look so gloomy, flicked on the TV for company, and turned up the heat. Warm and bright even if not merry. He was supposed to be beginning a stretch of days off. A stretch he expected would be interrupted, like today, when officers who had more demands on their time—like family—would start calling in sick. He didn’t mind so much. He’d rather be busy than sitting here hoping the world out there was okay. Like most cops, he had a roster of people who needed looking after. One fewer after this morning. If he was working, he could swing by and check on people.

He took a quick shower, as though hot water could wash today away. He was putting his basic supplies into the depressing interior of his refrigerator when there was knock on the door. 

The woman standing there looked vaguely familiar, but then, be a cop long enough and you’ve pretty much seen everyone. He recognized her when she smiled. Here name was Clara something and she worked downtown at the grocery store. She’d just rung up his groceries. She said, “Am I interrupting you?”

“Only from looking for something to eat in my refrigerator. I think it’s going to be chicken. Again.”

She lowered her eyes. Shy. He remembered that she was kind to people but very shy. Easily hurt. Crushed when customers were unkind. He’d seen those lowered eyes before. Whatever her business here, it had taken some courage to knock on his door.

“Oh. I’m interrupting your dinner. I’m sorry. I can . . .”

“You’re not interrupting anything, believe me.”

“Thank you. I . . . uh.” She held out a foil-covered plate. “I hope you won’t think me too forward, but I wanted to . . . um . . .” She couldn’t look at him as she said, “Thank you for all that you do for everyone.”

Take them to jail? Break up their fights? No one was celebrated for that. He was about to say it when she continued. “I’ve seen you, the number of times you’ve bought people groceries. Gotten toys for their kids. You’re a good man, Sergeant Donohue. I don’t mean . . .” Those eyes went to her shoes again and she continued to hold out the plate like an offering. “I don’t mean to embarrass you. I know you don’t like to take credit. Anyway, this is a little thing. Just, I baked a pie. I felt like baking last night and then, when I got home just now, there I was, all by myself, with this whole pie, and I thought of you. That you might like some pie.”

She’d about exhausted herself with that speech.

He stepped back and pulled the door wider. “Would you like to come in? If you have time. I could make some coffee. We could both eat pie. It would be more congenial that way.”

She stepped into his house so tentatively he wanted to say that he wasn’t scary. But cops were scary to a lot of people, the law-abiding as well as the scofflaws.

As she followed him to the kitchen, he was glad he’d put on lights and turned up the heat. The place didn’t look so gloomy. Less like a place where a lonely man sat by himself and studied his rust spots.

In the kitchen, he pulled out a chair for her at his vintage yellow Formica table and offered to take her coat. He hung it on a hook by the back door, a sturdy gray wool coat. She unwound a red scarf and took off her gray fleece hat and tucked them in the sleeve. She asked if she could help and when he said no, she sat in the chair and watched while he made the coffee. 

As he was spooning in the coffee, he paused. Said, “I hope you like it strong,” and went on, resisting the temptation to make regular, see-through American coffee. He’d learned which places had decent coffee. For him, coffee had always done double-duty: provided a break in the day and helped to keep him awake and alert.

“I like strong coffee,” she said. Then, nervously, “Do you have milk?”

“Milk and half and half, whichever you prefer. And sugar.”

“Half and half and sugar would be lovely. Would you like me to serve the pie?”

“I’ve got it. You’ve been on your feel all day, I’ll bet, while I’ve been sitting.” That was the job, going from patient sitting to breathtaking adrenaline surges, then back to sitting. With a lot of crazy along the way.

“You don’t have a tree,” she said.

“Been busy.”

“I don’t have one, either. Seems like too much work for just one person.”

What he thought, too, but she seemed sad about it. About being just one person in a lonely place with no tree.

Just as he was putting generous slices of pie on two plates, there was a knock on the back door. Well. Donahue knew it wasn’t a knock. It was the sound of something falling. Knocking against the door as it fell.

Irritation pricked him briefly. He’d been looking forward to pie and coffee with this gentle, pleasant woman. Instead, he would open that door and there would be someone there, probably in a bad state, who needed his attention. He snapped on the light, opened the door and looked down.

Billy Carson lay in a heap on his back porch. He was bleeding and barely conscious. His worn clothes were almost rags and the dirt on his face mingled with blood.

Donahue bent and picked the boy up—so small for ten he barely weighed anything—and carried him inside. It had begun to snow and the boy looked like he’d been dusted with flour. Clara, he still hadn’t recalled her last name, jumped to her feet and said, “What can I do?”

He’d known she wouldn’t be the fluttery “Oh my GOD! The poor child” type.

“In the hall outside the bathroom,” he gestured with his chin, “there’s a blanket. If you could spread it on the couch?”

No questions and no hesitation. She hurried to get the blanket, and spread it on the couch. He carefully lowered the boy onto it and stepped back.

“I’ll get a washcloth,” she said, and hurried away.

The boy groaned, tears leaking out from under his closed lids.

“What happened this time, Billy?” Donahue asked. “Your father do this?” A man not grateful for the food but taking out his anger at his own failure to provide for his family on the vulnerable people around him.

“Yeah.” The boy spoke in a broken voice. He was young but he knew despair. “And he took my money. I was saving it to give the little ones a Christmas.”

Young Billy Carson, age ten. Already a caretaker too familiar with failure and despair. Billy’s father was lucky he wasn’t anywhere near right now.

“Is your mom all right?”

The boy shook his head.

“The little ones?”

“They’re okay.”

“Who is looking after them?”

The boy’s weary voice said, “No one. I should be, I guess. But we needed help. Mom is just lying there, moaning and the little ones are scared. And we don’t have a phone. So I came to you.” It was the sound of defeat. He’d done his best, legally or illegally, and he’d failed. It was the failure and not his beaten body that was making him cry.

Donahue forced his hands not to curl into the fists he’d like to use on the boy’s father. Anger wouldn’t help right now. “Let’s check you out, make sure you don’t need to go to the hospital.”

“I’m okay. I’m okay, really, Sergeant Donohue. It’s my mom. I came for my mom, because she . . .”

He couldn’t go on. Just lay there with those tears leaking out. A swollen nose. Split lip. God but Donahue hated men who hit women and children. They were such pathetic cowards.

Donahue got out his phone. Called dispatch and told them there had been an incident at the Carson place. Officers and an ambulance needed. By the time the call was finished, the woman—Clara—was kneeling beside the boy, carefully washing the blood and dirt from his face. Tenderly. Speaking to him in a soft voice that must have been some kind of reassurance. Donahue couldn’t hear the words, just the cadence.

When Donahue finished that call, he called Belinda Carson’s sister. Maybe she could take the children. She’d come through before. 

When he explained who he was and why he was calling, he got a long sigh and then silence.”

“You still there?” he asked.

“I keep telling her to leave him,” the sister said. “She won’t listen. Says he means well. And he doesn’t. So what do you want from me?”

“Someone needs to take the children. Belinda’s being taken to the hospital.”

“Then who—” She broke off. “I’m not going into that trailer.”

“They’ll need their clothes,” he said. “If you can take them.” He stuck in a little guilt. “There’s no one else. If you don’t take them, they’ll go to the state.”

Another long silence. Then “Dammit.” Silence. “We’ve done this so many times. I’m about at the limit of my compassion.” 

Donahue wasn’t hearing compassion. He understood. Families played whack a mole just like the police. He waited. Silence.

She said, “But it’s Christmas.” Silence. “I’ll come and get the little ones. But Billy? Sorry, but he’s too much for me. I guess the state will have to take him.”

Billy, who looked after his brother and sister. Who did his best even if people thought it was his worst. Wasn’t even wanted by the one relative who would take in the rest of his family. The message that sent was beyond depressing.

He said, “You know that the children are very close. You know Billy looks after them.” He said it slowly, as though that would make a difference in its impact. Sometimes that worked.

“I know that I have one spare room not big enough for four people. I know the limits of my patience. I’ll come and get them but I’m not taking Billy.”

As he hung up the phone, Donahue felt like he weighed a thousand pounds. He knew what a rejection like this could do to a child. The weight of it made it hard even to move. He turned to see if the boy might have overheard, but the boy and the woman named Clara were gone. He could hear the shower running and murmuring voices. She’d taken him into the bathroom to clean him up, a job Donahue was happy to delegate.

He thought kindness was the most attractive aspect of people. Was grateful when he saw it.

What he wanted to do was go find Danny Coffin and make his face match his son’s. His hands were curling into fists again at the thought when she stuck her head out and said, “I know it’s a long shot . . .” Her eyes took in the large policeman. She hesitated and there was her gentle smile. “. . . but might you have something the boy could wear?”

“I might. I’ll check in the car.” The things cops carried in their trunks. He had blankets and stuffed animals and spare kids clothes. This wasn’t his first rodeo. 

He went out, not bothering with a coat, felt the cold come at him like an assault as he rooted through the stuff in his trunk. He came up with gray track pants, a Superman tee shirt, and a sweatshirt featuring some character he’d never heard of. He even found some boy’s underpants and socks. He collected this stuff on random trips to Goodwill and Walmart. Because you never knew.

He brought them back inside and passed them through the door.

“Thank you. We’ll be out soon,” Clara said.

Funny how readily she was making herself at home. He was very protective of his castle but didn’t mind so much that she’d stormed the walls.

He went into the kitchen. Spotted the pie and smelled the coffee. What he really wanted to eat was his chicken, but she’d brought pie and he would eat pie. Nutritionists despaired of him but he tried, really he did.

The sound of footsteps and Billy came in, followed by Clara. Scrubbed and in clean clothes, with his hair combed, it was possible to see a handsome boy instead a Dickensian urchin. He should tell Billy that the aunt was coming, but that was such a good news/bad news message he wasn’t eager. Instead, he said, “Billy, do you think you might be able to eat a piece of apple pie? Maybe with some ice cream on it?”

The boy tentatively touched his swollen lip. “Maybe I could.”

“That’s good, Billy,” the woman said, “because there is a lovely pie here waiting for you. Shall I cut you a piece?”

Donahue pour coffee for the adults, put cream and sugar in hers, and poured milk for the boy. They sat down to eat their pie.

The boy ate like he was afraid his food would be taken, his arm curled protectively around the plate.

“It’s okay, Billy,” the woman said. “No one is going to take your pie away. You can even have seconds if you want.”

The boy looked up warily. He was used to being lied to by grownups. No reason to think things would be different here. Except there was. Donahue had never lied to him.

“I don’t lie to you, Billy,” he said.

The boy smiled a cautious of his split lip smile. “I know that, Sergeant Donohue. It’s just . . . just the way I’m used to living.”

After a second slice of pie, the boy was drooping. 

“You look sleepy,” Clara said. “You want to lie down on the couch and rest a bit?”

Donahue looked at her, uneasy at the way she was taking charge in his house.

She looked down at her shoes.

“You’ll be more comfortable in the guest room,” he told Billy. “It’s this way. You can sleep in your clothes or I can give you one of my tee shirts.”

“I’m fine.”

The small figure, holding himself together so bravely, when he and his situation weren’t fine at all. He trailed after Donahue, stumbling with weariness. Then he stopped.

“What about the little ones? My brother and sister? And what is happening with my mom?”

“Your mom went to the hospital. Her sister . . . your aunt . . . is coming to get the little ones.”

Donahue turned, watching the boy process what he’d learned.

Billy nodded. “Does my aunt know I’m with you?”

“She does.”

“That’s okay then. See, she doesn’t like me very much. Never has. She says I look like my father and I’m going to turn out just like him.”

Donahue said, “I’ll make some calls, find out what’s happening with your mom. But you should get some sleep. Tomorrow is Saturday. No school. You can sleep as late as you want.”

He showed Billy into the bedroom, turned on the light. “You know where the bathroom is. I’ll leave a toothbrush on the sink.”

As he was closing the door, Billy murmured, “Tell Mrs. Donahue good night.”

Clara was still standing where he’d left, staring down at her shoes.

“I didn’t mean to . . . I’m not . . .” She stopped. “What about his father? Will he be arrested?” Silence. Then she said, “That aunt is a monster. Who would abandon a child like this? I would . . .” She raised her head, a blush staining her cheeks. “I always wanted a child and couldn’t have one and here are these people who have children and they treat them like . . . like animals.”

He couldn’t agree more. “Thanks for the pie,” he said. “And your help with Billy.”

She was looking at her shoes again.

It was getting late. He was tired but he couldn’t think of a polite way to ask her to leave. Odd, since being blunt with people was often a part of his job. Before he could summon that bluntness, she spoke again.

“What’s going to happen to him? In the short term, I mean? If his mother is in the in hospital and his father’s in jail and his aunt won’t take him?”

She was nudging Donahue toward what he was already thinking, and he knew she was doing it deliberately. There was more to this woman than the kind manner and the downcast eyes.

“I think we both know the answer to that.” He sighed. “Except it’s very likely I’ll be called in to work and while his family is perfectly comfortable leaving the boy alone, I’m not.”

It would be stupid to volunteer for a job he couldn’t do. But he’d volunteered to be a cop and that was a job he often felt he couldn’t do. Especially at times like this morning as he was covering Shelly with that blanket. You did what you could and it too often felt like never enough.

“Maybe I could help,” she suggested. “My schedule is flexible.”

Right. Get this woman who was almost a stranger to be his partner in caring for a troubled kid? A very bad idea.

“I don’t think—”

“That it’s a good idea?” She raised her head and looked at him, and Donahue realized that she was younger, and prettier, than he’d thought. It was as though she wore a disguise in the store and now she was taking it off. 

Having a kind and pretty woman in his house was so rare she might as well have been a dinosaur.

“It is a good idea. I know . . . well, I believe . . . that you spend all of your life giving to others and looking after others and keeping them safe . . .”

He opened his mouth to protest and she held up a hand to stop him. “I know it’s radical, but what if you tried taking for a change? A piece of pie. An offer of help. Is that such a crazy idea?”

There was something about her that made him want to agree. “I’ll consider it,” he said.

His phone rang. Dispatch, of course. They needed an extra hand at a scene. There was a gunman with hostages.

Tis the season to be violent, he thought. He said, “Hold on.” Looked at her and took another step toward something tempting that would upset his carefully organized life. “I’ve got to go. There’s an incident.” How could he ask her to stay? Yet he couldn’t leave Billy alone. Wouldn’t. It felt like a conspiracy against him. Against his solitude. He didn’t even know the woman and yet he’d leave her alone in his house?

“It’s fine. I can stay.” She gave him a reassuring smile. “I won’t go through your drawers or read your personal letters. I’ll just be here. Okay?” She made shooing motions with her hands, like it was her place and he was a lingering visitor.

He went to his room to get ready. This was not going to be a good situation. It called for thermal underwear and good wool socks. A wool hat and warm gloves. Geared up, he went down for his gun and his coat.

Dammit. If he was going to have a kid in the house, even for a day or two, he’d have to remember to lock up his gun.

As he shoved into his coat, he said, “Thanks for staying. I’ll call you.”

She smiled. “I’ll be here.”

Why did that feel so good?

As he unlocked his car and looked back, he saw how bright and inviting his house looked. He saw her at the window. 

It was a game. A farce. A moment. Yet it seemed right. He headed off into the night thinking the house needed some Christmas lights. Maybe even a tree.