Back cover description:
Have you ever wished that people would just get what they deserved? Well, Emma can make that happen, with just one thought.
Original Reedsy prompt:
Write a story that begins in the light and ends in darkness, or the other way around....
The universe is an amazing thing. Vast. Beautiful. And perfectly balanced—as a whole that is. There may be localized anomalies, little pockets of ups and downs here and there, but in general, balanced. A cosmic yin and yang. You can think of it like very poorly microwaved leftovers. Some parts are boiling hot, some parts are freezing cold. There’s light, and there is darkness. The weak and strong, rich and poor. And yes, even good and evil. But there’s always balance. Every time you gain something that you don’t deserve to gain, someone somewhere else loses something they don’t deserve to lose.
And then there’s me. I bring those annoying little unpalatable pockets of uncertainty and irregularity back into balance. Turn turbulent waters still. It sounds fantastical, but it’s really just science (as is all magic that we don’t yet understand). I don’t know how long I’ve actually had the ability. All I remember is this one day in elementary school, getting picked on by Cody Travis, the class bully. He kept pulling at my hair with his buddies during recess, when all I wanted to do was play kickball with everyone else. So, finally, I had enough, and I remember just thinking you should get what you deserve.
And then he did.
All of a sudden, he was writhing on the ground, screaming as if every cell in his body was on fire. I didn’t have to think of what punishment he should get, didn’t have to know all of his crimes. All I had to do was will his justice. And he got it.
It only lasted for a few seconds, but he was never the same after that. He went to the school nurse, who couldn’t find a single thing wrong with him, got sent to the ER, got discharged, and never came near me again. Maybe a normal person would have seen all that go down and felt bad, but not me. Something about that day stirred up something deep inside of my chest, some primal need for justice, for order. For the feeling like the one you get when you find the missing piece of a puzzle and feel it click right into place.
For balance. Peace.
And for a while, I thought I could only hurt people, bring the negative back to neutral. That changed when I was about fourteen. My mother went out one day to bring my brother back from his soccer tournament—I had refused to go with her, of course, being the moody teenager I was. On their way back, they were hit by a drunk driver going ninety on a thirty road. My brother died instantly. The drunk driver escaped somehow. But my mother wasn’t so lucky. By the time I made it to the hospital, she had already endured two emergency surgeries, undergone resuscitation, and was clinging to the last rays of life that she had left.
I’ll never forget her face when I walked into the room. She didn’t say anything. She couldn’t—not with a ventilator shoved down her throat. But she didn’t have to. I could tell exactly what she felt, exactly what she wanted to say by looking into her eyes. Those broken, dark brown eyes, spilling over with tears. Filled with that same pain I had seen inside of Cody Travis. She and I had argued before she left. One of those bad fights that ended in a chain of four-letter words—“hate” being the capstone of them all. Those serrated sentences would forever remain the last things we ever spoke to each other.
You don’t deserve this, I thought to myself.
And just like that, it was gone. The agony etched into her face. The ripples of involuntary seizures flowing down her body. She died in peace, that much I know. It was justice. It was balance. The same soothing scepter of equity I had wielded in elementary school. And yet, my surprise at this new revelation was overwhelmed by my instinct to punish those who had just upended my life like nothing else ever had or ever would again.
So, I became a cop. Predictable and cliché as it is. At the time, it seemed like a perfect place to utilize my ability, both the positive and negative sides of it, though you don’t often interact with the gems of society as a peace officer. More often than not, you get the Cody Travises.
A whiff of alcohol and day-old burrito breath assaults my senses, and it’s an honest struggle keeping my own lunch down. Sadly, not for the first time today. “Uh huh,” I reply gruffly, pushing down with all my weight to ram Mr. Coke Head into the backseat of my squad car. He puts his foot in the doorway and tries to liberate himself, but then I let loose a stray thought of righteous vengeance, and he recoils in discomfort, stunned into confusion.
Oh yeah, and I can control the levels of justice now. Like a baby viper all grown up.
I slam the door behind him, then make my way into the driver’s seat and turn off the lightbar. My partner, Nate, sits in the passenger’s seat, scribbling our report on a tablet. His mouth is twisted upwards in a judgmental half-grin. “You did it again, didn’t you?”
“Did what?” I reply with intentional innocence.
“You know damn well what. Don’t play stupid.”
I turn on the engine and pull away from the rows of tents that make up our guy’s homeless encampment. “Maybe.”
“Jeez,” Nate groans. “I thought you said you would try to not use it unless you really needed to.”
I scrunch my face and rub my eyebrows with one hand. “Look, it’s the end of our shift. I’m tired. So sue me.”
Nate puts the tablet away and folds his arms. I can feel his criticizing eyes boring a hole in my head. “What if this guy doesn’t deserve it?”
I throw a quick glance at the backseat. He’s passed out, stretched across the length of the seats, a small trail of vomit oozing down to the floor. I wrinkle my nose and turn back to the road. “They always deserve it.”
“How do you know? What if we catch a guy speeding and you give him justice, but the only reason he’s speeding is so he can pick up his grandma’s heart medicine? Wouldn’t you feel bad about that?”
“That’s not how it works,” I answer in annoyed defense. “Everything balances out. If he doesn’t deserve it, he won’t get it.”
Nate rolls his eyes and surrenders silently. He’ll be fine. I’ll just buy his lunch, or get him that Boomchickawhatever popcorn for movie night tonight back at home—he loves that crap. We’ve been roommates for years now, since graduating from the academy. And we’ve had our fair share of friction, but we always bounce back. I’ve learned when to stop pushing him, and he’s learned when to just let things drop.
Once back at the station, we book our suspect and head across the street to grab lunch at our usual taco shop. We get our orders—Nate unsuccessfully attempts to fend off my credit card—and then we find a seat in the adjacent park. He’s already softening up, I can tell. He always was the better of the two of us. Never could hold a grudge. I guess there’s that balance again, between the two of us. Always a balance.
“I found something the other day,” I say between bites. “A clue about the accident.”
“Oh?” he says with the same tone of reverence he adopts every time I talk about my mother and brother.
I nod. “The owner of a salvage yard saw one of my solicitations and found a match on the perp’s car. He said I could check it out, so I went down and tore the thing apart.”
“Wow, no way! What did you find?”
I rummage through my pockets and pull out a community rec center ID. Perry Shaw, it says. Culver City Parks and Rec. Nate takes it from me and looks it over. “Are you going to hand this over to the investigators? See if they can prosecute?”
I shake my head. “It’s been too long. This is circumstantial evidence at best.”
“So…what are you going to do about it?” he asks, though I can tell by his voice he doesn’t want to know the answer.
“I’ll find him.”
“And when you do? What do you plan on doing?”
I finish my tacos and crumple up the aluminum foil in my hand. “You know exactly what I plan on doing.”
“Emma, you can’t!” Nate snaps. I flinch in surprise, but he seems to catch himself and continues on with a gentler tone. “You can’t do that. You have an obligation now. To the law. You swore an oath! Everyone deserves a fair trial, even killers.”
“No, Nate. They don’t,” I counter fiercely. “Do you know why we have judges? Trials? It’s so that we can figure out just how much punishment a criminal deserves. But judges are imperfect, juries sympathetic, prisons ineffective. It’s a human system, inherently faulty at its core. I can give him the exact punishment he should receive. Balance it all out. No uncertainty. Why would you even say that?”
Nate hands the ID back and sighs. “Look, Emma. I’m here for you. I always will be. And you know I’m on your side. I’m just saying. Something isn’t sitting right with me. And I know it doesn’t sit well with you either, or else you wouldn’t be telling me about it all. You’d already be doing something about it. Just think it through, will you? Promise me that much?”
He nudges me in the shoulder while I stare at the laces on my boots. “Hmf,” I grunt ambiguously in reply.
perry shaw culver city
perry shaw LA
perry shaw LA country
Did you mean: perry shaw LA County?
Stupid piece of…Of course I meant LA County. I mash the link harder than my poor keyboard deserves and click through the results that pop up. Flip. Flip. My nails softly scratch the trackpad as I scroll through endless social media profiles of people whose names almost exactly—but not quite—match the one I’m looking for.
“Hey, I’m headed to bed. See you tomorrow,” Nate announces as he exits the bathroom and lumbers into his room on the opposite side of the house.
“Mmkay. Sleep well.”
He turns his light off, so I dim my screen and slump down deeper into the couch. Maybe I should go to bed too. This is useless. I’ll just pick up tomorrow when I’ve had more rest. This is just frustrating me right now.
I’m about to shut my screen when one of the results catches my eye.
Perry Shaw - Director of Anaheim Lightbound Pathways
I click on the link. A bio. And there’s a picture. It matches the one on the ID, albeit with a cleaner haircut and shave. My pulse quickens, and I feel my palms begin to sweat. He’s nearby. No more than an hour away. And he’s a non-profit director? I look through the website gallery just to be sure. There’s a photo of him standing with a group of young-looking individuals—college age, maybe—all holding chips in their hands. Sobriety chips. He is holding a bronze one. Seven of them.
That would put him about…
I slam my laptop shut and grab my keys.
It didn’t take long to search the public records and find out this creep’s address. Turns out he used to live in Culver City but got arrested in Anaheim not long after the crash for an unrelated incident. He went to rehab for a few years and started this little dog and pony show to convince people of the sincerity of his penance. I’m not buying it though. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve kept your bodies buried in the backyard, the bones never go away.
“Please, where am I? Who are you? What are you doing?”
“Shut up!” I roar. I don’t even want to be in the same vehicle as him, let alone breathe the same air that’s coming out of his mouth. I just want this to go quickly so I can finally get on with my life.
Seven years of searching. And now we’re here. Honestly, I’m not even angry anymore. I’m just tired. And disgusted. I want this to be over. I’ve been thinking of this day for so long, dreaming about what I would do, that it feels weird actually doing it. Like I’m watching a vision of myself carrying this all off.
I pull up along the banks of Irvine Lake and turn the engine off, then move around to the backseat and drag Perry out into the mud. He yelps and struggles, but I give him one quick whack to the back of his legs and he submits. I lead him by the nape of his neck over to the lake’s edge and thrust him down to his knees, ensuring that the blindfold is still securely strapped over his eyes.
The water is so still and even—glassed over in the windless night. It seems strange juxtaposed against the turbulence of our ordeal happening along the shore. But everything will be still once more soon enough. Perry Shaw. Me. All the sleepless nights I spend curled up at the base of my bed clutching the stuffed duck my mother got for me when I was four. It will all be evened out. Balanced.
“Please, what do you want? I have nothing to give you,” Perry cries. He’s actually fairly quiet—as if he knows I don’t want us to be found, and he’s trying to do me a favor—but still, I look around to make sure no one is watching.
I almost feel pity, looking at the tear-soaked blindfold and the trail of snot dripping down his nose, but it’s quickly wiped away by the assurance that whatever happens next is pure justice, good or bad. No matter what happens, he deserves it. Sure, he’s tossed a few coins on the positive side of the scale in the years since the crash, but it doesn’t matter. Causing another person’s death is an almost irrecoverable amount of debt, at least in my experience…
No more wasting time. The sky is getting bright and people will be out and about soon. People will notice Perry’s gone.
I’m about to shift my mind to thoughts that are sure to be Perry’s execution when something pulls my attention away.
A duck. Gliding through the air until it touches down with grace upon the lake’s waters, breaking the surface’s silk-like texture. Rhythmic peaks and troughs ripple outward from the spot where it landed, eventually lapping up onto the shore with a quiet little pat, pat, pat.
Waves. Alluring disturbances that carry their own flavor of beauty.
My mother would never do anything like this. She was too kind to people. Too forgiving. The opposite of me. People would cut her off on the freeway and she’d just respond with a smile and a well, bless their soul. She was always there to balance me out whenever I lost my temper, to cool my burning face with cool towels after coming home from whatever fights I would get myself into. I’ve drifted a long way since then, though, far from that centerline of peace and control. Wild, unmanaged without her guiding hand.
Because of Perry.
But does he deserve to die? Does he actually deserve the justice that I’m moments away from delivering? Perhaps. But should he deserve to die? How many lives would be affected without Perry around to balance them out. How many lives would be left to wander into the seas of anger and self-destruction, just like mine was when my mother died? How much good would go left undone without him around? Can my justice balance that out? Would those lives then fall on my own head?
These and other thoughts paralyze me as I stand there in front of Perry, waiting, praying for some burst of righteous anger to set me free.
But it never comes.
To say I’m better suited than anyone to deliver justice would be a horrible, farcical representation of reality. And I’m saying that as a cop, as a holder of this strange power that I was born with. We all have demons, and we rarely deserve the good things that life and fate have gifted us. And that’s the beauty of imbalance, I’ve come to realize. That’s the beauty of injustice. Because in the end, we would never survive the justice that we truly deserve.
So, maybe instead of delivering justice, we can deliver more forgiveness, more mercy. Because we are all going to fall. We are all going to mess up, no matter what. That’s just what it means to be human. But perhaps we can focus on lifting others up. Working together to elevate each other to greater heights. Maybe that’s the balance we need.
No superpowers required.