“I didn’t do it,” I tell him.
The Chief of Police rolls his eyes. “You don’t know how many times I’ve heard that,” he scoffs, flipping through a stack of papers on his desk with deft fingers. His glasses are balanced precariously on the tip of his crooked nose, and how that helps him see, I have no idea.
“Sir,” I beg, “I’m innocent.”
The Chief sighs. “What happened then?” he asks me. “Why is there only a pile of rubble where your house is supposed to be? It is almost certainly a work of arson, Mr. Blanchet.”
“I don’t know,” I whisper. “I don’t know what happened. All I know is that I woke up with fire dancing in my eyes.” I shake my head. “I tried to get them out.” A lump forms in my throat. They think I killed my wife and daughter.
“Listen, Mr. Blanchet,” the Chief continues. “Just own up to your faults and serve your sentence.”
“I’m telling you I didn’t do it!” I yell. “You think I killed them? You think, you think, you think! You all think, don’t you? Does not one person know I’m innocent? Why would I kill my wife and daughter? Why would I set my own house on fire?”
“I don’t know, Mr. Blanchet,” the Chief answers. “But the evidence, the facts, strongly suggest—”
“I don’t care about the facts!” I shout. “I care about the truth!” Tears slip down my burned, grubby face in a torrent of pain and desperation. I lower my voice. “I didn’t kill my wife and daughter. I didn’t kill them. I loved them.”
“Do you have any proof?” the Chief asks, mildly disinterested.
“These tears aren’t fake,” I reply. “These burns are real. Why would I have this many burns from that night, this many scars that will never heal? Sir,” I plead, “I didn’t kill them. I didn’t set that fire.” My eyes search over the desk for a picture frame. “What about your wife, your children? What would you do, during a raging fire—”
“That’s enough!” the Chief snaps, but his voice cracks. He places his head in his hands, and his shoulders shake like he’s trying to ward off tears. I know the feeling.
“I’m...sorry,” I mumble.
“Not your fault,” the Chief whispers. “It’s mine. I always took my obsession with the job as passion, as dedication.” He shakes his head. “Oh, but it was more. I worked six days, sometimes seven, a week. I was away from my family too much. I had a daughter, like you, Mr. Blanchet, and two sons. My work ruined my family.” He laughs bitterly. “And now it’s a distraction for the pain of coming home to an empty house, to a house I once called home. Sure, it’s what I go to every night, but you know that saying? The ‘home is where the heart is,’ quote? Well, I’ve begun to believe it in past years.”
“Then I’ll never be home, will I?” I ask. “I’ll never get home, even if I get out of prison and try to rebuild my life, I’ll never be home.”
“Never,” he tells me. “You’ll always be chasing what you’ve lost.”
“Like a dog, trying to nip his tail. He’ll keep running around in circles, but he’ll never catch it,” I say.
“Exactly.” The Chief straightens the picture frame on his desk. “Mr. Blanchet, I miss them.”
“But you have a chance to make it up to them, don’t you?” I ask. “It’s not too late for you. It is for me. It’s too late for me to even be able to say goodbye. I wish they had left me. Then they wouldn’t be dead. Gone. Forever.”
“They’re not gone, Mr. Blanchet, not forever,” the Chief replies. “It just takes a little believing. And someday, you’ll be a family again. But not me. No amount of forgiveness could bring them back.”
“Try,” I say. “If you love them as much as you claim, and I think that’s a lot, try. Try everything in your power. It might not work. I’m proof of that. But you have to try.”
The Chief leans forward in his seat. “Why are you telling me all this?” he asks, staring into my eyes as if he can find the reason there.
“I could ask the same of you,” I answer simply.
I haven’t seen the Chief in a long time. A bunch of other men, and women, have since sat down with me and tried to convince me that I am, indeed, guilty.
“I wouldn’t destroy my home,” I tell them. Every time. “I wouldn’t destroy my heart. I wouldn’t destroy my life.”
I wonder, sometimes, at how the Chief is doing, where he is, and why he, too, never said goodbye. It’s not like we were friends at all, but we started out as enemies and I wouldn’t say I hate him, not anymore.
Life loses meaning when everything that gave life meaning is gone. I believe, and have always believed, that love is a necessity to life. But everyone I love and everyone who loves me have been stripped away.
I’ve just about lost hope, when everything inside of me is begging to let go. That’s when the Chief comes back, like a godsend.
“How have you been, Mr. Blanchet?”
“Terrible, if I’m being completely honest,” I respond. “The world has lost its color and the vibrancy it once had.”
“Oh, but always be grateful for depth perception,” says the Chief. “Depth perception, when color is lost, is what gives the world meaning.” He starts pulling things from his desk and placing them in a cardboard box. The gold nameplate that reads: CHIEF OF POLICE, and the picture frame, and a little container of mints, and his fountain pens.
“What, you’re leaving?” I demand.
“I am,” he confirms.
“Where are you going?” I ask.
“California,” the Chief replies, “to go home.”
“But not after I finish your case,” he adds.
“What do you mean, sir?”
“It means that you are my last piece of work,” the Chief explains, “before I become a clerk at a big grocery store in California.” He pauses for a heartbeat. “It’ll take some time, I’m sure, but I am confident in one thing, and I will not stop until it happens.”
“And what is that, Chief?”
The Chief smiles. “Mr. Blanchet, I believe you are an innocent man.”