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Claire looks out the window across our front yard, into the neighbor’s arborvitaes, an evergreen wall obstructing the view of their house. She says, “Everything looks normal again.”
“All the crime scene tape is gone,” I say.
She remains there, her small frame illuminated by the morning light, her white and gold hair, the same shade as the spring sun.
I break our trance, because we’ve spent far too much time looking toward the neighbor’s house.
“Please make your lunch. Do you have a sweatshirt? It won’t be that warm today.”
“Yessssss,” she groans, turning on her heel to walk into the kitchen.
The after looks exactly like the before. 48 hours before, when she and Nick slept in on a Saturday morning that looked exactly the same as this morning. Same budding trees, same active squirrels and same blue sky whose crispness was a deception.
Before we heard what sounded like someone trying to hammer through glass. Sounds that failed to form a consistent rhythm. Sounds that pinged and pounded. Sounds that never would have taken root in our memory had they not been quickly tied to tragedy.
Before Jake asked, “Do you think that’s construction?” and I looked out the front window, where down the street there was a bright blue tarp and a port-o-potty, evidence of a neighbor’s remodel, reasoning the sounds must be coming from there. We heard the noise again, same clanging and reverberations, and because the day had warmed, the chores were done, the dog stood by the front door hoping to be walked, because everything seemed ordinary, we didn’t consider violence.
Before Claire stood up from the couch and said, “Big men with really big guns just went through our yard.”
Before I failed to register alarm. I had no sense in my gut that something was wrong. The hairs on my arms did not stand up. My heart did not beat faster. I looked out the front window again where our next-door neighbor was hard at work with his weedwhacker, wearing large steel toed boots and round noise blocking headphones, and assumed Claire was confused. “It’s just guys working in the neighbor’s yard,” I said, sitting down, hoping to puzzle for a few quiet minutes.
Before Jake came down the stairs and saw the same men Claire did and said, “Shit, everyone upstairs. Come on, get upstairs.”
Before the four of us scrambled, Jake and I behind the kids, into the playroom, huddling in the 90-degree angle formed by two old couches, but then, noting the number of windows in the room, crawled into the hallway.
Before Claire asked, “Did you or dad do something bad? Did you steal something? Are they coming after you?”
I laughed nervously while I pulled her tight to me, “No, we didn’t do anything wrong. They aren’t coming for us,” but for a moment I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure what they were coming for.
She was relieved. She didn’t also have to endure a betrayal by her parents in this moment of terror. Claire and Nick leaned into both sides of me and there was a rumbling sound, and they both looked concerned. I grinned, “Don’t worry, that’s just my stomach.” Every sound was heightened. We didn’t trust what we thought we knew.
Before I found the police scanner on a website on my phone and we heard, “Prepare for crossfire, but there are two kids on a trampoline.”
Nick whispered, “Is that Max and Jordan?”
“Oh God, it must be,” I said as I hugged the kids even tighter to me.
Before Jake and I looked at one another with wide eyes that hinted at the truth we could not let our kids know: we did not understand what was happening and we could not guarantee their safety. Jake began calling every neighbor, barking, as soon as they answered, “Go inside and lock your doors and go to a windowless room. There are cops with guns all over the neighborhood.” Then he hung up and dialed the next neighbor’s number in the HOA directory.
Before we watched through the camera feed from our doorbell and another on the side of the house as men in black with faded silver letters on their backs pressed the heels of assault rifles firmly into their shoulders, spreading out across our yard and hiding in the bushes across the street, the tension obvious even through the grainy screen.
Before we heard on the scanner that the suspect was born in 1999, that he was believed to have shot his sister, that he was wearing camouflaged pants and a grey shirt, that he was last seen walking in another neighbor’s back yard, that they didn’t know if he was armed. That his father was coming home and believed he could talk to him. The father was begging them to let him talk to him before they confronted him. Begging them to wait for him to arrive on the scene. He was certain he could talk to his son and he could keep him from hurting anyone else.
Before the man-child crossed the street into another neighborhood and approached a woman on her knees, with her back turned, pulling weeds in her front yard, telling her that he killed his sister, he was unarmed and he wanted to turn himself in, asking her to please call the police.
Before we heard the dispatch operator explain to the woman to instruct the shooter to take off his shirt and lay with his hands over his head and his face down in her front yard.
Before we heard they had him in custody.
Before we heard, “We need to know what to do with the dog. We need someone to take the dog away,” as the cops on the scene entered our neighbor’s home. Both kids looked at me and Nick said, “They’re only talking about one dog,” and both kids sighed, because they knew the neighbors had two golden retrievers, one much better behaved than the other.
Before we felt it was safe enough to leave the hallway and watch from an upstairs window as an ambulance pulled up to the small gate between the arborvitaes, and then departed only minutes later, never opening the back doors, never turning on its siren.
Before we learned he fired 500 rounds, bullets everywhere. 500 rounds into his sister’s bedroom. Into his sister’s body. The number so large it seemed impossible. 500 rounds.
Before we stood on neighbors’ yards, arms crossed, talking to one another but watching the police at work, combining rumors and small facts, theories and beliefs, kaleidoscoping together bits and pieces of information with the false hope that if we worked hard enough, we could make sense of what happened.
Before we realized we couldn’t understand the grief of parents who lost two children.
Before the news mentioned that the brother and sister lost were adults. Such a ridiculous distinction. It makes the pain for the parents no less acute. Their tender memories of before are obliterated by the after. Before, when the mother sat on the edge of her daughter’s bed and scratched her back gently to wake her up for a school day. Before, when she watched her daughter gently pump her legs to swing above and below the horizon of the lake in their backyard or when her son still let her kiss the top of his head and run her fingers through his unwashed hair, sweeping his hair out of his eyes. Before, when the father spent hours pulling the son behind his boat, watching him ski. Before, when they had family dinners and there were those magical moments when everyone laughed at the same time. Before, when memories were made in a house that they lived in for over twenty years, the after riddled with 500 bullet holes and blood and screaming and chaos and loss.
Before we realized how naive and privileged we were to believe mulched flower beds, a soccer ball in the front yard and days spent with front doors unlocked meant that a police crisis management RV would not block our driveway or leave us to wonder if the body was still inside the house.
But it’s the after.
After Nick goes to bed and falls asleep immediately and he doesn’t talk about what happened. Claire asks me to tuck her in and she has questions I can’t answer. “Was he in a fight with his sister? Did he want to kill his mom, too? Did his parents know he had a gun? Why did he have a gun?”
After I try to explain that people are mentally ill. I try to explain that gun ownership is complicated. But what she wants is to feel safe and I do the best I can and all I can promise her is that we will always do whatever is possible to protect her.
After the reporting on the story is little more than “An adult male killed his adult sister in their family’s home and the adult son turned himself in peacefully.” I do not wish for the story to be exploited but the summarization of the day’s events into a sentence is offensive. On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, for a period of time that defied one’s understanding of how seconds turned into minutes, a neighborhood worried a gunman might be hiding in their yard and pondered whether a windowless bathroom in the middle of their home was enough to protect them from a stray bullet. There was the destruction of a family. There was the loss of a life. There were 500 bullets cutting through walls and windows and a dresser and a bed and a young woman’s body. 500 bullets. There should be some reckoning with the fact that this is even possible. Some outrage.
After I take the kids to school. Jake walks our dog. I put our coffee grinds in the compost. I look out the front window and wonder how that Saturday afternoon could have unfolded, what if my kids had been playing outside, what if my kids had been home alone and Jake and I had gone to the grocery store, what if my neighbor’s daughter had gone Mother’s Day shopping that Saturday during the peak of her brother’ rage, what if there were no guns in their home. But I shake the thoughts from my head and sit down at my computer to work.
After I take our dog for another walk and notice the bags of potting soil and the plants still in their plastic containers by the neighbor’s garage door and wonder if the mother had requested that for Mother’s Day she be given the time and space to tinker in her garden, just like my mother-in-law requested. But instead, she stayed away from her home on Mother’s Day, unable to face the scene she fled – running away knowing that her son had killed her daughter and wondering if a bullet might pierce the skin of her own back as she sprinted through her backyard and into another neighbor’s home to call the police.
After the clouds pass beyond rooftops, construction resumes on the neighbor’s remodel, packages are delivered to doorsteps. A life has been lost and others irreparably shattered just a front yard and front door away and nothing has changed. Nothing.
After is the same as before.
Angela Kidd is a recovering attorney who is pursuing her passion for writing while spending more time with her family and balancing multiple side gigs. Her work has been featured in Motherwell, For Women Who Roar, the Belladonna, Points In Case and Like The Wind Magazine. She resides in Minnesota where she spends the winter complaining about the weather.