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Breath & Shadow

Winter 2021 - Vol. 18, Issue 1


written by

Laura Saint Martin

Gary didn't know which world was doing what, couldn't distinguish explosion from implosion, familiar landmarks gone twisty and airborne. The Choir of Contempt flocked like a murder, black crow wing gowns, Wydette front and center. She screamed, her hair as tall as a church steeple. Nadira lurked, shadow of a shadow. Big fat liar. Gary felt blurry, his head full of trash, voices he never met before crowding him. He walked around Target, looking away from all the staring people, people who kept touching themselves, pointing at their privates and looking at him. The trash voices crested and crashed like waves, and they hurt.

Auntie Deb is dying!

In one world, Gary’s favorite relative, Aunt Deb, lay in a coma at Pomona Valley Medical Center, giving in to cancer after four long years. He tried to visit her but was turned away because he was “disruptive”. He didn’t want the group home people to help out. This was nothing to do with them.

Gary spotted his favorite employee, tiny Taylor, dyed black hair and blue eyes. He normally respected her virginity, her strength that so few young women demonstrated. But not today. Her crow-colored cap of stiff hair irritated him, reminding him of Wydette. Taylor’s tiny voice rang false, her purity brittle as a Communion wafer.


Her imaginary cigarette was odorless but powerful. She was calling the shots today, and she was out of control. Something bad was waiting to happen, bad moon tapping silver fingernails on Gary’s brain pan. Someone might get hurt.

My radio crackles to life while I’m at the high school keeping tabs on my favorite trouble makers.

“David Three, La Verne."

“David Three.”

”Respond with Adam Seven, Adam Six, Lincoln One, Adam Seventeen, X-ray One, Adam Two, two one one three Foothill Blvd, four-fifteen verbal at Target, possible fifty one fifty.”

“Do you have further circs?”

“Subject name of Boy Ocean Robert King Edward Nora, first of Gary, yelling and throwing displays.”

“Any injuries?”

“None reported, property destruction only.”

I'm familiar with Gary, a local bit of color who hangs around the stores along Foothill Boulevard, getting free coffee from the kinder souls, myself included. He is usually harmless, but is obviously impaired in some way.

“Ten four. David Three responding.”

“There’s a lady talking to him now,” a woman tells me as we enter the store. She’s wearing the Target uniform, red shirt and khaki slacks, and carries herself with the self-assurance of a supervisor. “He at least stopped throwing things.”

I turn and see that Erika and Giancarlo, AKA Adam Seven, have been joined by a flash mob of uniforms. Because this is the City Where Nothing Happens, they crawl out of the woodwork for anything remotely interesting. I nod authoritatively at the blue tsunami, but the tension does not subside. Radios scratch and chatter like hens on steroids.

“La Verne, David Three.”

“Go ahead, David Three.”

“I need to switch frequencies and keep chatter to a minimum.”

“Ten four. All units responding at Target, switch to Blue Two, and hold traffic for David Three.”

The hens go silent, and I feel less menace behind me.

Gary is standing in the middle of a rubble pile by the dressing rooms. A woman in a flat-footed squat is talking to him, a woman too heavy and middle-aged to be comfortable in such a position. I recognize the messy fall of grey-streaked hair.

Helen Delacroix.

A single mom with autism and a psychiatric technician who works, eats, sleeps, and rides horses in her scrubs, she is what we call a “known entity.”

How is she so flexible?

She runs a hand through a hank of hair that has fallen over her eyes, tosses a glance over her shoulder. Her expression is blank, disconcerting.

“Got some Takis?” she demands.

“Takis?” I ask, stupified. She turns her head to face Gary again.

“I’m hungry. Get me some Takis.” She tilts her head carelessly in my direction, adds, from under a curtain of hair, “Please?”

My gut tells me to obey. Or the certainty in Helen’s voice. The voice of a woman who walks unarmed in the midst of rapists and murderers. Barefoot in the lion’s den.

Mad skills.

I turn to the blue wall, and it ripples, restless. I twist my mouth at Erika, who heads for the food court. Giancarlo watches her, shoots his eyes back to me. The wall murmurs and creaks, tactical belts shifting. I see hands hover over holsters.

“Stand down.” I school my voice with some of Helen’s authority.

The hands hover. “What kind of snowflake bullshit is this?” a voice hisses in a distinctive SoCal Latinx accent. I meet America Barillo-Ypez’ glare. She rolls her eyes with a flutter of lash extensions. Her partner, Graciella Villalobos answers with a flutter of her own. Their hands cup over their Glocks.

“Stand! Down!” The two patrolwomen gift me with some stink eye that would do San Bernardino proud, but the hands drop.

Gary is engrossed in a diatribe with his voices, pacing and gesturing. Helen continues to talk softly to him.

Erika returns with the Takis. Hearing the crinkle of the bag, Helen puts her left hand up, snaps her fingers. I take them from Erika, approach Helen slowly and stretch into her safety zone to hand them to her. She examines the bag, gives it a shake. Apparently satisfied, she plunks onto her butt with an exaggerated groan, almost comical. She crosses her legs like a yogi, opens the bag, pulls out one of the little red-hot, rolled up chips, gives it a thoughtful perusal, puts it in her mouth. She chews carefully, swallows. She extracts another from the bag, inserts it with a loud crunch. Gary is still pacing, but also casting glances at Helen and her Takis.

The thick blue line creaks. I stare over my shoulder like a ghetto mom. Roll, flutter. “What is this puta doing?” Just loud enough for me to hear. But not enough for the camera-yielding crowd that has gathered.

I squint, and the crowd grows silent, so that I can hear Helen crunching Takis. Gary hears them, too, and his monologue incorporates references to food and the ideology of sharing, becomes smoother and more hopeful.

Helen holds the bag out to him. “Want a Taki?”

Gary stops pacing, looks at the bag as though it might hurt him. “Wydette says no.” He resumes pacing.

“I say yes.” Helen’s voice stops him in his tracks.

“Wydette will get mad.”

“She’ll have to go through me.”

“She’ll yell at me.”

“Tell her to fuck off. Better yet, I’ll tell her.” Helen raises her voice, still calm. “Fuck off, Wydette.” She extends the bag, and Gary reaches for it. They crunch together. I move forward, the wall shadowing me.

Helen’s left hand snaps up, a cautionary finger holding me in place. I know that finger, a finger that not only directs the daily activities of the criminally insane, but can stop a twelve hundred pound equine in his tracks, can send that equine in any direction she chooses. The wall ripples in anticipation. Helen, looking for all the world like some trailer park Yoda in her lotus pose, pulls her hand back into her little Zen bubble. She crunches a Taki, wipes her hands on her scrub pants.

“Gary, you know Detective Arias, right?”

Gary looks from under his thick brows, nods.

“She’s good people, right? She hooks you up, right?”


“We want to get you home safe. I’m real sorry about Aunt Debbie. Lots of folks are worried about you. Will you let Detective Arias take you home?”

“Wydette is gonna be so mad.”

“Right now, Gary, your family needs you to be strong, don’t you think? Stronger than Wydette.”

Gary paces, consults his inner kingdom. His hands gesture a plea. He grimaces, tugs at his hair. He stops pacing, yells “Bitch!” and punches himself in the head several times. The blue wall stirs and creaks. The finger of doom extends with a preemptive hiss, Helen's lips tight and eyes fierce.

“Gary.” Cautionary. He drops his hands, gasps, brings them up to scrub at his wet face. “Gary? You ready? Will you go with Detective Arias and Erika now?”

He nods and turns childlike eyes to Erika and her sunny grin. Helen shifts to her knees, steadies herself with her hands and tries to get up. Giancarlo is at her side with a chivalrous arm. “ I got you, Gorgeous,” he reassures her. Even proud-ass Helen can't resist his charms and allows him to help her up. She brushes the seat of her scrub pants with a grunt of disgust.

“Target needs to clean they damn floors.”

Gary follows her like a puppy.

We choose Erika’s SUV for comfort, Helen displaying overt signs of claustrophobia at the sight of my unmarked, cramped back seat. Gary cries softly and rocks back and forth, and Helen maintains a silent vigil next to him. We drive him to his group home in Pomona. We hand him off to a worried care provider, then Helen gets out. She turns back to me. “It wasn’t my intention to undermine your authority or anything,” she tells me. Her eyes are vague, destination unknown. “He needed to see that someone was in control. I wasn’t so sure about your posse back there.”

I smile. “Neither was I. You did good. That could have turned ugly real quick.”

She ducks her head.

“Get in. We’ll drive you back to your car.”

“I told Gary I would talk to him, see if we can get him in to see Aunt Deb. I’ll find a way back.”

“We can take him. Give us a call and we can come back and get both of you.”

“I think he’d really like that. I’ll get a ride. This isn’t really my business.”

“You sure?”

The old Helen is back, self-effacing and waiting for one of a million shoes to drop. “I’m good.” She takes a step, stops, turns back. “Thank you.”

I nod, and Erika peels off from the curb. Typical cop, in love with her defensive driving skills. I trust her with my life. She looks at me. “How did she do that?”

“She used all kinds of tricks of the trade, counseling stuff. She works at a state hospital, so she knows how to handle these types of people. Like how she squatted down like that? Made herself smaller, less threatening. And how she treated us, a big cluster fuck of armed cops, like her trained dogs? She showed him, with her confidence, her total lack of concern, that she had control of the scene. An overweight, middle-aged, unarmed nurse. Not us. Not the big bad po-po.”

Giancarlo snorts. “Even the Bang-Bang Bitch Brigade was muzzled. What a coup, by some fat, aging hippy dippy. I’d give three of my left nuts to cut that hair. Love her make-up, though. Smoky as a blown crack house. Way more subtle than Murrica Miracle Whip and Gracelessiella, tawdry sluts. She’s kinda hot. The Freak Whisperer.”

Erika turns around and gives Giancarlo a classic you crazy glare, but I’m silenced by the lightbulb above my head.

“No, she’s a Herd Master.”

Laura Saint Martin is a semi-retired psychiatric technician, grandmother, jewelry artist, and poet. She is working on a mystery/women’s fiction series about a mounted equestrian patrol in Southern California. She has an Associate of Arts, and uses her home-grown writing skills to influence, agitate, and amuse others. She lives in Rancho Cucamonga, CA with her family and numerous spoiled pets, and has dedicated her golden years to learning what, exactly, a Cucamonga is. She works at Patton State Hospital and for She can be contacted at

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