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I climb out of my new SUV and close the door. I am wrapping my black wool coat tightly around me and checking the time on my Blackberry when my tired colleague joins me on the sidewalk. It's 4:15 a.m. and we have been out for about three hours. "What was the address Detective Carter gave you?" I ask. She pulls out a small piece of paper and reads off the address.
I am not fazed to be on a dark street in a bad neighborhood in the middle of the night, because I've done that plenty of times in my sordid past, but this time is different. As we locate the house, I am keenly aware of how ironic this situation is. I walk up the cement steps and knock loudly on the door. I hold my breath and silently say a prayer. "God, please be my voice; allow me to deliver this message with compassion and love. God, please be with me and them."
The door opens and a frail, older, black woman in pajamas appears. "Good morning, Ma'am. Are you Mrs. Hunt, Jamie Hunt's mother?" I ask. Her eyes widen as she stutters out a "yes." "My name is Jennifer Storm, and I am the executive director of the Victim/Witness Assistance Program. This is my colleague, Amy. May we please come in, Ma'am?" She nods and opens the door for us to enter. In the living room, a small child plays on the steps. The woman says to an older man, "Honey, these people are from the county." He looks at us cautiously, realizing that we are not here with good news. He motions to the child to go upstairs. She pouts and gives me a dirty look as she stomps up the stairs. "What is this regarding?" he asks. Mrs. Hunt has taken a seat on the couch, and Amy sits down next to her. I ask Mr. Hunt if he would like to sit down, and he quickly responds that he is fine. I can tell he is half scared and half annoyed that we are in his home at this early hour. I kneel down in front of Mrs. Hunt.
This is the part of my job that I dislike the most. It is the hardest thing a person can do, yet I do it with such ease that it almost frightens me. My voice goes into a very gentle but concise tone as I say, "At approximately 11:30 p.m., your son, Jamie, was shot twice on North Third Street in downtown Harrisburg." Her eyes widen and she gasps as her husband raises his hand to his forehead. I don't miss a beat, as I know I have to get this next sentence out as soon as I can. "He died instantly." Mrs. Hunt begins to let out a piercing scream that cuts the air like a knife. Amy immediately puts her arms around her and attempts to console her. Mr. Hunt quickly goes into the next room, shaking his head briskly back and forth, and he just mutters over and over again, "No, this can't be. No, I just saw my son tonight. No, it isn't possible." His desperate eyes meet mine and he says, "Are you sure it was Jamie? I was just with him." I meet his eyes directly and respond, "Yes, sir. We are positive. The coroner made a positive identification thirty minutes ago. Here is his number for you to call." I continue to hold his gaze and tell him how sorry I am for his loss as I hand him the business card.
I explain that his son's body is at the coroner's office until the autopsy is done. They will then transport the body to whatever funeral parlor the family prefers. I go into detail about what our agency does, how we can help with the funeral arrangements. I tell them about victim's compensation and that financial assistance is available should they need it. I watch his face as I have watched the faces of so many parents in disbelief. I know he is only half hearing me because he is in shock.
Mrs. Hunt is in the other room on the phone calling relatives and screaming into the phone, "They killed my baby. Jamie is gone. They killed him. Jamie was shot. You need to come over here right now." Amy and I stay while family members begin to arrive. They have a ton of questions, some we can answer and some we cannot. What happened? Where was he? What was he doing? I know the answers to some of the questions and give as many facts as I can. I also know that Jamie was there to buy drugs, and it was a bad neighborhood, but I do not offer that information. They probably know that already, and it isn't the time or place to say it.
We leave them plenty of materials detailing our agency's services, information they will need for the upcoming months, about the criminal justice process and what happens when the offender is caught. After an hour or so, the family clearly needs to be alone, so Amy and I give our condolences once more and let them know they can call us anytime, twenty-four hours a day.
As we walk out of the house, I am exhausted inside. I look over at Amy, who has the same withered expression on her face that I know I do. We just shake our heads and get back into the car. I feel the sense of irony again, realizing anew that the body I saw a couple of hours ago could have been my body. The blood spilling out over the sidewalk could have been my blood. The parents opening their door could have been my parents.
Many years ago, I ran the streets in the middle of the night buying drugs, risking my life to get high. But not today. Today I am the person who does the knocking and delivers the message no parent or person should ever have to hear.
©2008. Jennifer Storm. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Blackout Girl. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Hazelden, Center City, Minnesota 55012-0176.