Someone Has To Pay

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The words stopped me in my tracks.

I’d been hired to write a grant proposal. It seemed like a good match, too: a not-for-profit agency that does work with homicide victims’ families in an inner-city locale, and a partnership grant between the federal Office of Victims of Crime and the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center to provide direct services to homicide survivors and victims’ families.

I was in full work mode. I’d prepared all the relevant documents. I had the wording down. I’d pored over appropriate websites. It was time to speak with the director of the agency, and in preparation for the interview, I read everything that I could about their work. And that was when the words stopped me.

Burial assistance.

There’s no getting around those words, is there? I’d been immersed in statistics about homicides; I’d read about young men and young women shot, stabbed, intentionally hit by automobiles; I’d read about families torn apart, children left without parents, women wailing in the night; and through it all I’d been able to keep a comfortable distance between the words and my heart. It was my mind that was engaged, aided by the knowledge that I was part of an effort to actually do something about it …

Until I read those words…

… and reality felt like a slap in the face. There’s no dressing that phrase up, no use pretending it means anything other than the stark realities behind it: that children are killing other children and that, at the end of the day, someone has to pay for those children to be lowered into the ground. Someone has to figure out who to call, what to do, where to go.

The last thing that this particular agency—founded by the grieving mother of a homicide victim—does for the family is help them bury their child, their parent, their sibling, their spouse. The feelings that ignited the violence—anger, revenge, arrogance, greed— are gone; the blood’s been cleaned up; the police have been involved. Perhaps the drama will play out further on some distant day in a courtroom or on a playground; but in the meantime, for this time, everyone has left. The emergency medical technicians, the police detectives, the crime scene technicians, the emergency room personnel, even the reporters … they’re all gone.

And the family is left. Alone. Bereft. Angry. And having no idea what to do with the broken body that’s all that is left of their love, their hope, their child.

I took a deep breath. I should be used to this; I myself had been, in a not-so-distant prior career, a social worker. I worked on a locked adolescent psychiatric unit that observed and treated forensic cases–really sick kids. Kids who had started fires, had abused animals or other children, who had killed someone. I knew about violence and I knew about death. So why were those two words my undoing?

For they surely were. I was sitting at my desk in my comfortable workroom on a beautiful spring day and was suddenly sobbing as though the night of these victims’ experiences had come coursing through the screen of my laptop and had engulfed me in its darkness.

We all take murder lightly. I’m as guilty as anyone: I grew up reading the exploits of elegant or lovable fictional detectives, from Miss Marple and Lord Peter to Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe. As an adult, I have continued my interest in murder mysteries, both as a reader and as a writer. I read the cozies when I’m feeling blue, trying to figure out intricate motives and timetables ahead of the sleuth in the plot-driven stories, smiling in eager anticipation when yet another exploit of one of my favorite detectives makes it into paperback. The victims all die in interesting ways: expiring elegantly on the library floor, ingeniously killed in locked rooms, sealing their own fates through ancient hidden secret deceits. They’re all erudite or eccentric, or have interesting hobbies or habits, or are somehow related to someone special.

We live in these fictional worlds where justice always triumphs and the case is always successfully closed, where blood is spilled in the most genteel of manners over the most exotic of carpets, where villains are clever and lead the detective on an interesting chase that is just dangerous enough to quicken the pulse of the reader, make her look around herself with that delicious frisson of fear that isn’t any more real than the characters whose story made it happen.

And they have nothing to do with reality.

Reality is darkened streets in the projects where people who lost hope three generations ago kill each other over the drugs that are the only things that bring relief to their existence. Reality is an imagined slight magnified through the lens of puberty and resulting in a drive-by shooting that takes as collateral damage anyone who happened to be seeking relief outside on a hot night. We don’t even grace these killings with the same language we reserve for the fictional drawing-room murders; we call them homicides, and we turn the page or change the channel and move on.  After all, the only people it happened to was “them.”

Reality is killing for no reason. Reality is dying for no reason.

Reality is burial assistance.

I’ve been thinking that maybe that’s worth bearing in mind the next time I use murder for my own fictional ends. Maybe that’s the least I can do to honor the needless deaths of children and the pain of those who mourn them.

So I’m taking 10% of my income from my next murder mystery, A Killer Carnival, and donating it to the My Life, Our Journey Foundation, a financial resource for families and individuals to aid with funeral costs and related expenses, so everyone can bury their loved ones with dignity.

As a fictional murderer myself, it’s the least I can do.

 

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