A novel set in Duluth, Minnesota revolving around five characters thrust into the world of opioid abuse and human trafficking.
The body had been found on a bench near the shore; lips blue and skin white. New Nikes coated in road salt, college algebra textbooks in his backpack. Plus, a bottle of pills. The name on the prescription didn’t match the one in his wallet. His name was Jake. He was not sixty-five and he was not a woman. But he had been in pain.
Jake had been headlines for the past week. The city wanted to know how this could happen, as though the answer wasn’t clear. The day Jake died, doctors wrote over a dozen new prescriptions for pain. Ask them, the whole city seemed to be hurting.
The press event by the lake today was supposed to mean something. The mayor was here, toting a proclamation tucked into a navy binder embossed with the city’s seal. He stood at a lectern a few feet from the bench where they’d found the body and spoke to the cameras arranged in a crescent before him. His boyish face looked strange under salt and pepper hair, like children stacked inside an overcoat, playing grown-up. He read from notecards his staff had prepared. Quoted stats his staff had researched.
“More people die from opioids than from breast cancer or guns. Drug addiction devastates lives and destroys communities. Ours is not immune. It is time we, in this community, stand up and say enough. Something must be done.”
The something was money. A budget infusion to the Duluth Police Department that would create a Special Investigations Unit. The mayor gestured to the black woman standing near the lectern. A police captain from Minneapolis transferring into the community. The one who would lead SIU. Who would fight the epidemic. This captain, with her arms crossed and her head tipped toward the earth, looked like she was conserving energy. She looked up for the fight.
Applause. From city councilors and drug treatment counselors and high school guidance counselors. The mayor spoke of a summit, a meeting of minds that would create the master plan to win the day. His speech was rising toward triumphant. The faces of the crowd were upturned, defiant and resolute. The mayor read the proclamation. April was Opioid Awareness Month. More applause.
The mayor ended his speech by finding each camera lens in turn.
“We see you. We hear you. We will not leave you behind.”
But there was another gathering by the water. One far removed from the first, held back by a police line so their signs would go unseen by the press. The signs were sharpie on pink and green poster board. Grainy photos of Native women and girls, plastic wrap protecting them from the cold spring rain.
Justice For Our Women! Where Is Carol? Remember Shannon.
These were the ones who were gone. Not in treatment or in the system. Not found on a bench near the water. Six months from now a ring would show up at a pawn shop. Two years from now, a body in a forest. An arm in a black plastic bag. An ear. More often, though, nothing.
The ones at this second gathering stood in a circle because there was no crowd. A Native woman spoke first.
“This is an old story. It has been going on for a hundred years. This began on the ships, and now it continues in our community. In this city’s neighborhoods. On our reservation.”
Ten feet away, across the worn path and past patches of stubborn snow, just beyond the concrete wall running the length of the harbor slip, Lake Superior was waking. Ice flows rushed for each other and surged for shore. Smashing apart. Breaking, tipping and drowning. The swells in the slip grew, black water rolling as if a great serpent was skimming just below the surface, slipping into the harbor.
Another Native woman spoke.
“She always called when she got home from school. Half-past three, every day. The day she didn’t, I called the house at quarter to four. By the third ring, I knew. She was thirteen. She would be sixteen, now.”
Out on the horizon line, the vanishing point where water merged with the sky, a fleck of black appeared, and began to grow. These ships crossed the water like ghosts. A shifting part of the background, as constant as clouds.
A third woman spoke. She was white, the only non-Native in the circle, tall and blonde and thin. Her name was Ellen. She had no speech or notes. No staff to prepare her remarks. She spoke the statistics they all knew by heart.
“Three out of every four female runaways will be trafficked. One out of every three Native girls will be sexually abused. The average age of entry into sex trafficking is twelve.”
Her voice was soft and low. Unlike the mayor’s, there was no triumph in her speech. She spoke into the circle and worried that her words were being absorbed into bodies that couldn’t hold any more pain.
As the applause from the first gathering began to ebb, as that crowd shook each other’s hands and patted each other’s backs, as they hustled to warm cars and warmer offices, this circle set down their signs. Clasped hands and prayed.
The ship sliced through ice and water, cleaving the surface and birthing whitecaps in the wake. Ice sheets rushed up and over the rocks, shattering apart on shore. A flock of gulls swooped low and close. Cars streamed over the bridges spanning the harbor. Spring-weather tourists hustled past for pictures of the first ship of the season. To this grieving circle, the ones who’d lived here their whole lives, it all felt like invasion.
This time next year, this circle would be holding hands again. There would be new faces on new signs.
The prayer was finished. Ellen gathered the pink and green poster board. She’d stow them in her trunk and then her office closet. She shook hands and offered hugs as the circle dissolved. Until she was the last one left on this rocky patch of shore behind the yellow police tape. That’s when she turned and watched the Edwin H. Gott steam past the slip, under the Aerial Lift Bridge and into the Duluth harbor.
The port was open. The season had begun.