Well “big” to my 4-year-old son, Noah, who often watched the boy walk home from the school bus with a herd of other “big kid” boys. All between 7 and 12 years old, all with backpacks bouncing behind them, all wearing puffy jackets and knit gloves that their parents probably laid out the night before.
The boy seemed like a good enough kid, along with the rest of the gang — rowdy at worst. They spent the summer riding two-wheeler bikes throughout our gated community, being told to settle down by the lifeguard (because CANNONBAAAALLLL!), and ending the nights with flash-tag and manhunt and other memories that’ll cause pangs of nostalgia 20 years from now. They were never caught smoking cigarettes or accused of vandalizing property (not yet at at least), but they once got in trouble for running and playing outside of other neighbors’ windows, which is the equivalent of a fist wag and a “Get off my property, ya hooligans.”
That’s the worst thing that typically happens here. Little rugrats and their high-pitched laughter.
But like I said, the boys aren’t little to Noah. I watch him watch them — I watch as he chirps a little “hello” or shoots his hand up in the air, hopeful of a wave back from the cool-kid group. Most of them are nice enough to the little pipsqueak, but I often wonder if any of the boys will play a role in Noah’s childhood.
Will any of these boys bully him in school?, I’ve thought. Will any of these kids pass him a joint one day? Or a bottle of whiskey that they swiped from a parent’s liquor cabinet?
I focus my gaze on the younger kids in the group — the ones most likely to share a 4-year high school with my little boy. He was one of those boys. (I say “he” because I don’t know his name, even though I’ve passed by him countless times shuffling along with his buddies. I don’t know his name, even though he once joined Noah’s little-kid gang on the playground, playing close enough that I could have reached out and hugged him. I don’t know his name, despite it being written in the police report, along with his older brother’s name. I can’t remember his name, but I can see his round, smiling face — so young.)
Yesterday morning, he was found in the back of his father’s car parked at a supermarket up the road. He was shot in the back seat, possibly by his father, who sat dead in the front seat — leaving a messy and tragic scene to find in a parking lot, first thing in the morning. Back at their townhouse — which is maybe 30 strides away from my front door — his pre-teen brother was found shot and killed, in what was described to me as gruesome. The mother’s body is missing but the police have reason to believe that she’s hurt and possibly worse. A family murdered.
I won’t get into the hearsay details and say more than I should — the investigation is still young. (That, and the facts of the case are weird and confusing.) This was this week, after all. Two days ago there was a family living in that house; one day ago there was crime-scene tape, hazmat suits, sniffing dogs, search helicopters, media cameras, and dozens of law enforcement officials knocking on doors and shaking their heads. Today there’s quiet and shock.
There’s an emptiness.
There’s a community of parents who — like so many other communities of parents across the country — are having to discuss grown-up topics with little boys who are wondering why their friend can’t come out and play. Teachers who have to explain why there’s an empty desk, two months into the new school year. Townspeople who have to make sense of the unimaginable horror that happened while we slept. Neighbors who wonder if they could have done something, or noticed something — and who then feel a desperate helplessness. We didn’t notice anything, even hours before the incident. We all watched the sun set together, not knowing that for one family — for that house right there — there would be no sunrise.
By the time Noah came home from preschool yesterday, most of the frenzy had dwindled down into a false sense of normalcy. We had nothing else to say; there was nothing else we wanted to hear. The helicopters were gone, the dogs were gone, and only a handful of officers remained on site — nothing to cause too much alarm for a 4-year-old. And he played and lived as he always has, completely unaware.
I wonder if he’ll notice that one of the boys in the cool-kid gang isn’t there.
I wonder if the cool-kid gang will forever remember their buddy who shared a summer of laughing and playing. A little boy who didn’t show up at the bus stop one morning.
I wonder if I can ever shake this sadness.
And I wonder if this will ever, or can ever, be stopped.
UPDATE: The tragedy was officially ruled as a triple-murder-suicide after the mother’s body was found in a nearby town, and our community is utterly grief stricken. I can’t pass by their house — with a single porch light shining — without thinking about the older boy, Mujtabah, and his last moments in his parents’ bedroom. Was he running from his dad? Did the shot come out of nowhere? I think about his younger brother, Zain, and how he ended up in his father’s car, crouched down in the back seat. Was he hiding? Did he know what was about to happen?
I picked up pizza yesterday in the same parking lot where Zain was found — after days of avoiding the area — and was overwhelmed with imagining the fear and betrayal that must have gripped his 9-year-old body. I can’t stop picturing their faces — imagining their thoughts and experiences — as if putting myself at the scene would make their last moments less alone — alone in the bedroom, alone in that cold car.
My heart goes out to the family.