Another shooting and another and another. Our gun culture is ruining us. How many lives lost? How many more lives irrevocably harmed? Shootings have become so commonplace they are engrained in our psyche. Every time we go to the store, or to work, or school, or to gather to worship, whenever we go anywhere, the possibility of getting shot is real. Statistically unlikely, but real.
I used a shooting in a backstory scene in my most recent novel, THE SUITOR. I added the scene to illuminate Anna’s character. To give meaning to her fears, her feelings of loss, her need to self-medicate, her impossible desire to do something meaningful with her life.
Part of me wishes I hadn’t relied on a shooting to advance my story and character. After hearing of yet another mass shooting that took place last night, it’s too painful, even disrespectful. But I used it because shootings are a part of life now and can explain a lot about Anna. I used it because I feel empathy for victims.
Here’s the scene.
It was last August, two weeks before she would be returning to Colgate for her senior year. She’d interned all summer at the law office of Johanna Ruiz, champion of women and their legal causes. Johanna handled domestic violence cases, rape cases, protection order cases. She represented the battered, the beaten, the saddened, the scared. The ones who had no one else to advocate for them, the ones who could pay very little. Anna helped to research and prepare cases, conduct interviews, and write letters and briefs. Johanna Ruiz was her hero and her mentor. She wanted to be like Johanna when she became an attorney.
The office space was small and cramped, at the end of the hall on the fourth floor of an old commercial building on North Pearl Street in Albany, nothing like the spacious and modern interior of her father’s firm in the Schuyler Tower.
The scheduled client meeting that morning was with Olivia Lord, a woman seeking freedom from the husband who she claimed had raped her on multiple occasions and just the week before had whipped her with a length of coaxial cable until she was welted across her back and legs.
Johanna had just introduced Anna to Olivia. This was the second meeting between attorney and client. The first meeting had been in May, which Anna was not present for, but after the initial consultation Olivia had shied away from taking any action. She was too afraid of her husband. But the beating had proved to be a tipping point and now she was back again.
Olivia was broad on top and narrow in the legs, with bulging, frightened eyes that dominated what otherwise was a pretty face.
There was a small table not much larger than a card table where the three of them gathered to talk about next steps, beginning with an order of protection, and then getting Olivia or her husband out of the house.
Olivia sat and listened, but she fidgeted. She had trouble settling in her chair, and kept wringing her hands together and darting her eyes toward the door.
Johanna put a hand over Olivia’s to try to calm her and she offered her client a glass of water, which Olivia accepted, but when Anna got up to pour the water from a glass pitcher Johanna kept on her bookcase shelf, she noticed flecks floating in the water. It might not have been changed in several days.
“I should get clean water,” Anna said. She took the pitcher and headed to the end of the hallway to the women’s restroom. She rinsed out the pitcher at the sink and filled it with fresh water, then took a moment to enter one of the stalls to pee.
While washing her hands she heard sharp popping sounds and assumed it was the workers she’d seen on her way in this morning digging up a section of the street out in front of the building.
She made her way back with the full pitcher. Just outside Johanna’s office she paused. She smelled something burnt. She opened the door.
There was a dissipating wisp of smoke in the air which was the source of the burnt smell and there were three bodies. Olivia had been knocked off her chair into the bookcase and sat slumped on the floor. Next to her, Johanna lay face up, eyes still open. Just inside the door was the man—Olivia’s husband.
Blood everywhere. Blood on the bookcase, on the table, on the floor, all over the bodies. A can of red paint had been spilled on Olivia’s chest. A crimson pool bubbled on Johanna’s throat. The back of the man’s head had been replaced by a red and gray cavern.
For a beat and then another, Anna stood in one spot, feet cemented to the floor, her mind unable to process, until she heard a sound coming from Johanna. Anna saw her hand twitch. Her lips quivered.
Still Anna did not move. The idea of giving aid or calling for help did not enter her mind. Nothing did. She was frozen, catatonic. Within a few seconds the sound from Johanna stopped, the surge of blood at the woman’s throat settled, and the world had gone silent.
When Anna finally regained herself, she took a step forward and her foot kicked the gun, which skittered a few inches on the floor, coming to a stop with the barrel pointing back toward her. She knelt in front of Johanna and began to sob.
Later, after the police and the paramedics arrived, the last thing Anna noticed before leaving the office was the glass pitcher. It was full of clear, fresh water. Somehow in her state, she’d taken the time to set the pitcher on the table.
She spoke about the events to the police, to her parents, to the psychiatrist who prescribed her medication, and to the therapist she saw afterwards. She recounted how she’d gone down the hallway to get water, heard the sounds of gunfire that she mistook for the road workers, and returned to the office. She talked about the burnt smell and the smoke hanging in the air. And then she stopped talking because every time she did she pictured the three bodies, and panic and fear consumed her like flames, and she became stuck in that moment of gruesome discovery and paralysis, burdened with the realization that she would be dead, too, if not having gone to fill a fucking water pitcher.
Everyone told her how lucky she was that she happened to leave the office for those few minutes when the murderous husband appeared. It was awful—yes; horrific—certainly; a tragedy—indisputably. But Anna was the lucky one. Some people even told her that God had spared her for a reason, or that she’d survived to fulfill a greater purpose.
She didn’t feel lucky, or blessed, or purposeful. She felt guilty for having survived. She hated herself for freezing in her moment of terror. She felt as dead and gone as those three others, yet unlike them, she was expected to go on with her life.