"Fist," said the boy.
The two plainclothes cops stood over the boy. He was twenty-two-years old, bloodied, crumpled on the thin mattress in the corner.
The male cop flicked on the bedroom's overhead light.
The boy turned away from the glare. His eyes were swollen shut.
"With they fist? Somebody got a hard hand. Why they hit you? You touch your cousin, huh? You didn't? Why would they say you did? Have you done that before?"
"Why? You like kids, man?"
"Not really? Then why you touching 'em?"
Contusions swelled like burst plums under the boy's eyes and over his cheekbones. Sometime that morning, after the beating, he had crawled into the bedroom. The boy's name was Robert Stoval.
"You ever been in an institution before, Robert? What institution you been in?"
"Hawthorne Center." Robert could barely speak. His lips were bloated, teeth bent. He gurgled as if he were under water. Mouthing words must have sent fires through his nerves.
"Hawthorne? What did you get sent in for? When did you get out?"
"When I was fifteen."
A high window was shaded by a Chicago Bulls bath towel, folded over the rod as if to dry in the sun. It was March. The small ranch house was on the east side of Detroit.
"So everybody think you still doing that? You not doing that now, are you, Robert? Did you touch that girl last night? You didn't touch her last night? Did somebody see you in her room?"
"She wasn't in her room. When we came back. . . ."
"Talk to me, Robert. Came back from where?"
"Came back with my cousin and. . . ."
"Did you go into the room she was sleeping at?"
"She was -- okay. Okay. I was in the living room. I thought she left."
"You went into her room."
"No. I sat on the couch, and I didn't know she was lying there."
"You fell asleep on the same couch?"
"No. No, listen."
Both cops were still standing. The female cop, Officer Roselle, was off in one corner. The male cop, Officer Campeau, was in the doorway that led out into the living room where a large, lone couch with sunken plaid cushions faced a television set. A quiet woman who identified herself as "the aunt" stood, hugging herself and mumbling into her fingers, in the kitchen.
In the open floor plan of the ranch, the kitchen was bounded only by counters and, on the floor, by the thin metal edging to the linoleum. Home from a half day of school, kids in coats too light for winter wandered in and out of the house, in and out of doorways. The house was open from end to end, from front to back, with only a series of doors-to closets, bedrooms, and bathrooms-on the one side of the house.
"I came from my other cousin's house. I was staying there since Friday."
Walkie-talkies crackled. Officer Roselle lowered the volume dial on the walkie-talkie on her belt. Officer Campeau unbuttoned his navy-blue down jacket.
"Just tell me what happened with your cousin. You didn't touch her last night? Did you know she was there, lying on the couch?"
"She was lying on the floor."
"And she got up and got on the couch. And you did not touch her. They beat you up today because they thought you touched her."
"Somebody seen me touch her. I guess. I guess he seen me touch her."
"Okay. All right. Y'all want to take a look at him?"
Two emergency medical technicians had arrived and were standing outside the bedroom doorway. The bedroom could barely fit another person. The white EMT set the stretcher down on the floor in the living room while the other squeezed between the cops, set his bag in the nest of wrinkled sheets, and removed the stethoscope and blood-pressure cuff.
"What's his name?"
"Robert. Hey, Robert. Tell him where you hurt at so he can do something with you."
"My head hurt."
"Where you hurt at?" asked the EMT. "That the only place you hurting?"
The cops watched in silence. Snowflakes melted into the black watchcap of the kneeling medical technician as he measured Robert's vital signs. Robert's blood pressure was seriously elevated: 200 over 118. The EMT bandaged the bleeding wounds on Robert's face, skull, and ears.
"I suggest you stay away from your cousin when you get them urges, Robert," said Officer Campeau. "You old enough to get your own help. You feel like you got to touch somebody that's a kid -- well, you get up and go, man, you hear me? That's all you got to do. You grown now. Ain't nobody got to take responsibility for you but you. Where your parents at?"
"My mother, she. . . ."
"Okay, what about your father?"
Robert turned his head side to side.
"You don't know your father?"
Drums. Drumming. A cymbal crash. The sudden riot of percussion sounded through the doorway and up through the floor.
"That ain't no CD," said Officer Roselle.
"Somebody's playing the drums," said the white EMT in the living room. "It's coming from the basement."
"Who playing the damn drums?" shouted Officer Campeau.
The aunt made a move to leave the kitchen area but stopped just beyond the counter, stepped back, held the countertop for support. "That's Jessie. He a friend of the boys. They play. Music."
"Music?" said Officer Campeau. "Okay, I take your word for it."
A girl in a turquoise Princess Jasmine T-shirt and with a series of brightly colored clips in her hair stood by the television listening in. "He won't stop," she told Officer Campeau. "They playing in a real club."
"He's playing for real in the basement right now," said Officer Campeau. "You tell him quiet down."
"I told you he don't stop. He needs to practice."
"He sure do," said Officer Roselle, still in the bedroom.
"He's not that bad," said the white EMT.
"I hope you're being funny," said Officer Campeau.
"He's terrible," said Officer Roselle.
"He don't let that stop him," said Officer Campeau.
"No, he don't."
"You gotta start somewhere," said the white EMT.
"Yes, you do," said Officer Roselle. "And I'm starting to get a headache."
Robert groaned. He had been resting the back of his head against the wall, but the wall was vibrating from the rhythm of the drums below.
"Easy," said the watchcap EMT, helping Robert rest his head on a pillow.
Out in the living room, the aunt wanted to ask a question, and Officer Campeau noticed she was touching her face and moving her fingers over her lips, as if coaxing herself to speak. "Unless that kid actually saw Robert touch her and stands up and says, 'I saw him touch her,'" Officer Campeau explained, "we don't have a case."
"And beating up on him," called Officer Roselle, "is not the way to do it."
"Robert," said Officer Campeau, returning to the bedroom. "Give me some names. Who hit you? They beat you up in here? Out there? Who beat you?"
Officer Roselle placed a hand on Officer Campeau's shoulder to move past him and went out to talk to the aunt. The aunt said she worked the night shift at the 24-hour Kroger's grocery store so she could be home for the kids in the mornings and evenings. She said it was hard to sleep while the kids were at school and so she was always tired, but she was thankful for the money and she did what she had to do. She said the older girls helped out with the cooking and the chores, but some of them had jobs, too, and she was trying her best. She never said no to the children under her roof, she was doing the best she could for them, she just couldn't be here all the time. How could she? She went and took a gray sweatshirt off the back of a kitchen chair and put it on and zipped it up and asked if Officer Roselle wanted any coffee. She didn't. The aunt palmed her chin and pulled her ear and said Gerald put a kitchen knife up in Robert's face. Gerald was sixteen. He was a cousin. Trevor was Keisha's husband, he was twenty-eight. Trevor and Gerald beat on Robert. They found out what Robert had done to her daughter, Mina.
"I thought you said you was the aunt?"
"Who your daughter with now?"
"Keisha. My oldest. She's married to Trevor. She live on -- " The aunt, glancing into the bedroom, held her tongue.
"She yours, too?" Officer Roselle was talking about the little girl in the Princess Jasmine T-shirt.
"Tina," said the aunt, "Mina's sister." She reached out and beckoned for the girl, who stayed in the bedroom doorway so she could see and hear everything. The aunt snapped her fingers as if in reproach to the girl, then crossed her arms and shivered and, for Tina's benefit, asked how Officer Roselle got to be a policewoman, a question Officer Roselle ignored.
"When they beat Robert?"
"They came this morning."
"This morning?" said Officer Roselle. "How long Robert been in there like that?"
"I don't know," said the aunt. "Maybe two hours."
"Two hours? He been in there for two hours?"
Everyone spoke over the noise of the drumming. The drumming was still going on. There was the sound of a radio, too, as if the drummer were playing to a song on the radio.
Tina snuck into the bedroom.
"Don't that drumming boy know what's going on?" Officer Campeau asked the little girl.
"He don't care," said Tina. "He's not related."
"He needs to control himself, okay? Somebody go tell him shut up."
The girl didn't move. She was waiting patiently, ready to answer any question.
"Hey," said Officer Campeau. "I'm not playing. Go. Now."
"He won't listen to me," she said. "Nobody listens to me."
Officer Campeau looked at the girl, and she returned his gaze with a bold stare. She was barefoot, in hand-me-down jeans sloppily cuffed. A spill soaked the neck of her T-shirt, and crumbs around her mouth were probably from sweet colored cereal. Patches of dry skin flaked her arms like snow on tree branches. She needed a bath and lotion. A child in a house of children had to fend for herself or she was lost. This girl had a quiet, intelligent strength about her. "Okay," said Officer Campeau, waving the girl to his side. "Let's go see the drummer."
"I ain't being no witness," Tina said. "Keisha had to be a witness."
Officer Campeau touched her shoulder and moved her alongside him. "You can be the judge," he said. He kept his hand there, and they moved a little unsteadily together out of the bedroom and through the living room. Tina knew she had made herself important.
Then the EMTs moved Robert. They carried him through the narrow doorway and set him on the stretcher. They fastened the straps as gently as they could over his body and limbs. They lifted him slowly. Officer Roselle held open the front door for them. "Snow's turning to ice," she warned. "Watch your step."
As the EMTs were carrying Robert through the front door, Officer Campeau and Tina were passing through a door in the back of the house. The basement door, opened and falling shut, briefly let loose the mad thump and hot crash of the drums. The aunt, overcome and confused, ran after them.
"Tina!" she cried.
Gone down the stairwell, the big cop in the navy blue jacket was already taking her little girl down to the basement.
The aunt turned. There was no one left in the house. The front storm door was hung wide open on a wind, and chilled air was being sucked in.
Potentially, might be ...