“Wait, where?” That couldn’t be right. Zeb double-checked the address on the display.
POSSIBLE TRIPLE HOMICIDE: 512 Maple Avenue, White Pine, NC
“Well, shit. Here we go,” he thought. “On my way,” he said, as the radio sent his voice careening through space.
It wasn’t a long or hard drive. In fact, Kevin knew exactly where he was going. White Pine was his old hometown. It’s not the type of place to get much attention from homicide—not that they didn’t have their share of domestic quarrels that ended with some woman or man blowing their spouse’s head off. He had seen plenty of that, but that happens everywhere. Put a couple people in a house, depress them economically, give them booze and guns, and you’ve got a recipe for any measure of violence.
He thought over some of his cases as he drove. Second to last time he was called out here, it was for a knifing. Joel Osborne’s boy. Zeb remembers walking into a kitchen that looked like a scene from the Saw movies. He hated those movies. Joel was a drunk. His son was a bastard. Everyone in town lowered their voices when they talked about him. They didn’t ignore him; gossip was too much fun for that, but they had to signal that the usual Southern sensibilities would be offended by the actions of their subject.
Teenaged Mitt caused trouble for everyone at the local high school. Joel would be called in to pick up his son, and the teachers would purse their lips and look the other way while the father mentally and verbally beat his son on their way to the truck. Mitt was accepted into the Marines straight out of high school, but he was back in town just months later. Dishonorable discharge. Joel couldn’t take it. The gossip continued in its hushed tones, and Mitt worked various construction jobs as a laborer and lived in a trailer near his father’s house.
The report said that he died from massive blood loss and pulmonary laceration. Zeb didn’t have the read the report to know that. Mitt had brought home a girl from an out-of-town bar. They were both drunk, but apparently, she wasn’t as far gone as he thought. He attacked her in the bedroom, but she managed to break free. The phone was hanging from its cord when the police and EMS arrived. Zeb remembered thinking that it fit the area to have a corded phone on the wall. She had the time to dial 911 and grab a knife from the counter before he made it into the kitchen. He was very drunk, and she had some training in some form of martial arts, Zeb couldn’t remember which.
She had bruises all over her body, and the EMS people said that she was coated in his blood. She was in shock. She answered his questions in single syllables. The last he heard, she had gone back to her family out-of-state. Hopefully she got some help.
That all happened on a Friday. He expected the call on Sunday. In fact, he had warned his superiors about it. Joel didn’t show up at church that morning. Joel was a regular. He hadn’t missed a Sunday in 45 years. He arrived ten minutes early and always sat on the inside end of the pew in the back row of the balcony at the local Baptist church. He placed a twenty in the offering plate every morning, and he always asked the preacher to pray for his boy.
Zeb made the drive back out to White Pine. Joel was in his barn. There was a note in the dining room, apologizing for the mess. The buckshot had made a mess.
When Zeb asked why no one had gone to see Joel on Saturday, the local police chief said that some officers planned to check on Joel at the church service. Zeb knew they had waited on purpose. The chief didn’t like Joel’s type. He knew he wouldn’t be coming to church that day. Zeb had sighed and thanked the chief for his time. He knew there was no changing those politics. He’d have better luck trying to put Joel’s face back together.
That was the last time he had been out to White Pine for work. This time was different, though. Maple Avenue was in the “nice” part of town. “The big house street,” as he remembered calling it when he was a kid. This was usually burglary territory. Someone egged a car. Every now and then domestic violence. Joel couldn’t remember the last time they had a reported homicide here. Every now and then some old lady or man would die in their house, but that’s just life—he chuckled—the last part of it, anyway.
The house was massive, by small town standards. Most of the houses in town were mill houses or brick ranch homes. This would’ve been the mill owner’s home. He grimaced as he pulled up to the checkpoint. They had closed down the entire street for this one. A couple reporters spotted the government plates and tried to flag him down. He ignored them. A local officer moved the barricade so Zeb could drive through. Zeb recognized him: Matthew Haynes. Nice kid. He was several years younger than Zeb. He grew up in White Pine and signed on to their police force after going through the County’s community college law enforcement program. His face was grim. Zeb guessed that he hadn’t had to deal with anything worse than the local bar getting a little out of hand.
“Hey Zeb. The chief’s somewhere inside. He’ll be glad to see you.”
The chief may have been glad to see him, but that’s all relative. A starving person is glad to find a piece of bread, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s starving. Zeb saw the severity of the situation on the chief’s face.
“No. Nothing’s missing.”
“Maybe they got scared when they saw the family. Panicked. Killed them. It happens all the time.”
“Does the killer usually paint a mural on the wall afterwards?”
Zeb felt the disgust welling up in his throat when he turned the corner into the living room. A man and a woman were seated in chairs in the living room, both facing the wall where a TV had been. They were dead. The man’s eyes were propped open with toothpicks; a bloody smile was painted onto his face. The woman’s head had been meticulously wrapped in masking tape, and something resembling a surprised face had been painted over the top. The TV was leaned against the wall. The public tv station was playing. The wall, which had been white, had a mural on it. Zeb stared for a moment. The mural was a picture of the room. The paint came from the body on the TV stand. The monochromatic mural showed the room as it had been altered. The bodies sat in their chairs, staring back in a sort of meta-observation. The painted TV leaned against the painted wall, and the morbid palette was half-mirrored in the base of the image. It was the center of the image that caught Zeb’s attention, made his heart sink. In the middle of the portrait was an image of the police chief, looking down at his feet, and another man. Wearing the same clothes as Zeb. Staring directly back at him.
I, being myself, said something a little silly today. My roommate’s girlfriend asked for some clarification about something I had said, saying that my statement was one that was prone to a common misconception. I retorted that I did not have misconceptions. I was being sarcastic, hyperbolic, and perhaps a little snide, but later, I was thinking about a challenge posed to me in the form of an (ironically enough, misconceived) obvious example of a misconception; I had noticed that my roommate’s food contained shrimp. I stared at the shrimp for a second before I said aloud “Oh, that’s a shrimp.” My roommate responded with “I thought you didn’t have misconceptions.”
Here’s the thing, that wasn’t a misconception. I hadn’t actually conceived of the shrimp as something other than a shrimp. My questioning was part of the process of my perception of the crustacean. To say “oh, that’s a shrimp” is not to exhibit a prior misconception of the thing that turned out to be a shrimp. It’s an exhibition of the result of understanding and correctly processing the sensory data that led me to conclude that the item I was staring at was a shrimp. I had perceived that the thing I was staring at was a shrimp. I had no prior conception that shrimps were things other than what they are, and I hadn’t formed misconceptions about what the thing on the plate was. I simply hadn’t given any thought to the sensory data that allowed me to identify that the thing which I later determined to be a shrimp even existed. This led me to think on things other than shrimp.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our perceptions of people who hold differing Opinions. I capitalize Opinions to emphasize that I’m writing here about things that shape the way we live our lives: our religions, our politics, and our ethnic backgrounds (among other things that I’ve surely forgotten to list). I strive to treat other people in the best way possible. I don’t mean that I always ascribe the best of intentions to their actions, but I do mean that I try not to assume that I know why people act in certain ways.
The tribalism that we so often see on Twitter, in politics, and scattered throughout our various forms of media exhibits itself in our everyday lives, at least it does in mine. I see people voicing uninformed or misinformed opinions about others whilst simultaneously casting those people as the “bad guys” who have the worst intentions. It seemed to me that those people had misconceived the intentions of others, but now I’m no so sure that’s it.
So what’s my point? Why did I start off talking about shrimp and end on a ramble about the biases that people hold? I’m not sure, but I think I may have noticed something today about the way that we perceive others. I’m not sure that many of the so-called misconceptions that we hold are those at all. I think that we often view others as maliciously holding on to misconceptions of those who they view as the other, while in reality, they haven’t properly conceived of the other person in the first place.
It seems that when people see others of opposing political affiliation, they tend to discount the worth of the words that person could share. They ascribe the worst intentions, and then they use the preconceived notions that fit the political label to describe the rest of the person. Before today, I would have said that the person judging the other had severe misconceptions, but I now think that the problem is one even more fundamental. Instead of dealing with misconceptions of shrimp, we can’t even see the shrimp for what it is. My roommate should have told me that I may not have had misconceptions, but I obviously have a problem with misperceptions. I think that our problem is that we have conceptions of labels, we perceive a person as falling under a label, and then fail to try to conceive of the ideas that the person himself holds.
So, yeah. That’s what I thought about tonight.
“You know,” he said, as he sat in the old wooden rocker, watching the fire. “People talk about the perseverance of the Saints as if it’s a good thing. I’m not so sure it is.” The old man stared at the flames as they danced around the logs. “I mean, sure. ‘Once saved always saved,’ and all that jazz, but wouldn’t it be better if we could lose our salvation?”
“How are we even certain of our salvation in the first place, Jim? We’re told that good fruit comes from good trees, but then at other times we’re told that all the trees are rotten, and only one thing can rid the rot. Where’s that magical tipping point?” Jim didn’t answer.
“‘Confess with your mouth and believe in your heart,’ Jim! That’s what they used to say. They also told me that I couldn’t do anything. ‘Not by works, old boy.’ ‘God is love, son;’ that’s why He burns the rotten trees that couldn’t grow anew. I mean, you can’t allow the infection to fester. What about when God plants the trees, Jim? What then? What if the infection is sown by the Doctor? The Doctor sure doesn’t like to see His patients suffer. That much is clear. What Doctor would? At what point do the sick become the condemned, though? I just don’t know, Jim.” Jim just sat there.
A fiery avalanche in miniature tumbled into the ashes. Sparks cartwheeled and floated, seemingly of their own volition. The air expanded and exploded, and Jim just sat there.
“I really want to believe in a loving God, you know? I can’t believe that there is no God. Sure, perhaps our idea of God is wrong. I could be a deist, but then there’s all those stories. God is love. Jesus loves the little children. He healed that woman who bled; He deigned to touch the lepers. Love your enemies and, bless those who curse you. The peace that would result from such an attitude, Jim! But I suppose that forgiveness requires wrongs, and wrongs require a Right. Malice needs an object, Jim. How do we get around that?” Jim looked over for a minute, but he didn’t say.
“An all-powerful God is a terrible idea, Jim. A loving, all-powerful God is a thing of beauty. A just, loving, all-powerful God is what they posit, Jim. The justice supersedes our idea of love! God’s justice requires Him to destroy evil, and we are evil! I didn’t want to be evil, though, Jim. I didn’t have a choice in the matter. I want to be saved; who doesn’t? I want to do good; only the truly sick don’t want that. Only those in need of a Doctor, Jim, not a Binary Judge. Why would the Doctor-Judge make His patients his defendants, and then try them before treating them? Jim, I don’t mean to be blasphemous, but the idea of a loving Father does not mesh with the idea of a fickle King who casts his subjects into a fire. The judgement is always the same. ‘You are sick. You shall die.’ How do we know when we’ve won the cosmic lottery, Jim? Do we want to?” Jim stood up and began to pace.
“Come on Jim. Let’s go for a walk.”
Jim wagged his tail.
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