- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 7, 2002

I walked out my front door that Tuesday morning with Sean holding my left hand and Jeremy my right, compiling a mental list of things we needed for Jeremy's upcoming third birthday party.

I looked up to see a fierce commotion at the park at the end of our street. Park and Montgomery County police officers were striding back and forth in the parking lot, huddling together, talking on walkie-talkies, pointing this way and that. Yellow crime-scene tape flapped in the gentle breeze. My neighbors stood on the sidewalk, murmuring to each other.

"What's going on at the park?" I asked one of them. She looked at Sean and Jeremy and coughed slightly.

"There's, um, … an investigation going on down there," she said, looking at the boys again.

Curious, I let go of their hands and walked a few steps toward to park to see what was going on. Then I saw it. The white sheet in the parking lot. I whirled to face my neighbors, and, forgetting Sean and Jeremy were right there between us, I blurted out, "Is that a dead body at the park?"

So much for my neighbors' attempted tact in the presence of Sean and Jeremy. It was indeed a body, and our sleepy little park was going to turn our sleepy little neighborhood upside-down.

In the hours to come, we would learn that somebody from miles away had been killed or dumped at our park, the victim of an apparent gunshot to the head. We would hear from jittery neighbors who suddenly remembered hearing what sounded like gunshots at 3:30 in the morning. Or was it 4? Or 1? Or was it just a car backfiring? We would hear the police say, "It looks like a homicide," and speculate on whether it took place at our sleepy little park in our sleepy little neighborhood or miles away, where everybody wishes heinous acts would take place.

We would stand on our sidewalks later that evening and talk about Neighborhood Watch programs and whether the park police would make more routine sweeps of the park and the neighborhood and whether those sweeps would help them catch the pit bull that had been running loose in the park, prompting several phone calls asking them to come and do something about it.

That all would come later. I didn't know all of that, of course, as I stood there on my sidewalk that Tuesday morning, staring at a white sheet in a parking lot only a few feet away from my house, with my two little boys pulling at my hands, imploring me to take them shopping for M&Ms and birthday-party treats.

All I knew in that moment was that the seedy underbelly of man's depravity had come crashing down on our sleepy little park, our sleepy little neighborhood, just a little boy's stone's throw from slides and swing sets and picnic tables. We had played there only hours before and probably would have played there that night except for the yellow tape, the patrol dogs, the men and women with notebooks and badges and lots and lots of questions.

I quickly hustled the boys into the van and drove to the sanctuary of the local supermarket, where I could pick up some candy and think. Part of me wanted to drive far away and not come back for days. Part of me wanted to hurry back and learn as much as I could about what was going on at the park. Part of me wondered what Sean knew about dead bodies and gunshot wounds. All of me struggled with what I would tell him if he asked.

He didn't, until we tried to return to our street and a park policeman stopped us and told us the rest of our street was cordoned off and we would have to park elsewhere. That started a stream of questions from Sean. Why couldn't we park at home? What were the policemen doing? What was going on?

We parked on a side street near our town house and trudged up the sidewalk toward our house. When we got to our parking lot, Sean looked around this way and that and then shrugged.

"Why did that policeman tell us we couldn't park here?" he asked. "There's no dead body in our parking lot."

He said it so clinically, so matter-of-factly, I didn't know if he knew what he was talking about. Dead bugs he knew about. Dead bodies he didn't. Had he even seen the sheet in the parking lot? Did he have any idea what was under it?

I spent the rest of the day preparing my speech about how some people are bad and do bad things to other people and how the police help figure out who the bad people are and how they did the bad things so the police can stop them. And that's what happened at the park today, Sean somebody did a bad thing to somebody else, and the police were there to figure it out.

What's that? What does "murder" mean? Well, that's a good question, Sean. Sometimes, when you hate somebody a whole lot, you want to … What I mean is, some people are really, really bad, and … Well, you know when Jeremy tries to pick up ants on the sidewalk sometimes, and they stop moving when he does that? Well, that's because he's kind of killed the ants … No, that doesn't make Jeremy a bad, bad person, because you see, ants aren't people …

By noon, I had given up trying to ready the speech. When the questions started coming, I would just take a deep breath, pray a little prayer and wing it as best as I could. But the questions never came. The police eventually finished their preliminary investigation, the white sheet and what was under it disappeared, the yellow tape went into the trash cans, and the cars with the flashing lights went away.

The questions never came. There were no nightmares for Sean that night, or the next night, or the next. By the end of the next day, the park had begun to return to normal. The basketball games, the dog walkers, the bike riders, the playground antics were all back. We went to the playground and joined in, laughing and giggling as we had the previous week.

But that night I hugged Sean and Jeremy extra hard when I kissed them goodnight. Real life was starting to encroach on their blissful innocence, reminding me that I had better be prepared the next time. The birds and the bees you can prepare for; bullets and bodies you can't.

You never can.

Mark Stewart, the stay-at-home father of two boys, Sean and Jeremy, is a free-lance writer.

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