You know when you hear stifled tears in the voice of your son -- the mellow, easygoing one who takes most stuff in stride -- something horrible has happened.
"A kid got shot across the street," said Mani, 23, whom I'd just phoned Saturday at his apartment in Los Angeles. His voice, thick and unfamiliar, struggled to elaborate. Finally he blurted, "I'll call you back."
He'd been sitting at his desk, nodding to an "electrified techno ballad," when six shots shattered the soothing midday vibe. His first thought: "Firecrackers -- neighborhood kids are always setting them off." But the blasts were "too fast, too -- mean," he recalls. "Fireworks don't sound malicious."
The wails dispelled any doubt -- a girl's voice crying, "Oh, my God!" followed by another screaming, "Nooooo!" When one of his roommates rushed in shouting that someone had been shot, Mani called 911. He ran outside.
Lying on his back on crimson-stained stairs, was "this kid -- he looked about 15 -- strewn across the apartment entrance," Mani says. "You see this blood. This lifeless body. My heart felt like it dropped out to my knees."
Several young men hunched over the body. One punched the victim's chest. "Tell me that's not real," one kept saying. "Tell me that's not real."
It couldn't be. Not on the bright, busy West Los Angeles street where my aspiring-screenwriter son lives. Not here in Silver Spring, my neighbors felt last month, when Kanisha Neal, 15, was stabbed to death after a football game at Blake High School -- my middle son's alma mater.
Not another terribly young person dying for no good reason.
What could justify William Cureton, 22, being shot to death last Friday in Southeast Washington, or Nnandi Gibson Obi-Rapu, 23, of Northeast being found the same day, shot in the head? James Fletcher, also 23, was discovered early Saturday outside his Northwest home; 20-year-old Miguel Henry, a Maryland carjacking suspect, was found in Northeast. Comparative senior citizens Nigel T. Ross, 28, and James Michael Campbell, 38, were found dead last week, too, in Boulevard Heights and a Northeast alley.
Reading these men's names, noting the locations of their deaths, most of us barely paused. Who are these people whose abbreviated non-stories -- this man found dead in an abandoned lot, that victim blown away on a stoop -- cause us no outrage, curiosity or shame?
Kanisha Neal's slaying was treated as news. But she was a girl -- and a suburbanite who'd died perilously near kids whom no one expects to have such experiences. What of the young men slain in more "appropriate" venues, such as midnight alleyways and poor, urban streets? In the past decade, slayings in Washington dropped 50 percent to their lowest level since 1987, says D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey.
Ten years ago, the killings were so frequent, some people treated them like dust -- annoying and inescapable, but something one needn't always notice. Now, as then, about 80 percent of those killed were black and male. Just like the victim about whom the Los Angeles police issued a statement:
Orette Jones, 19 -- a football player at Santa Monica College, Mani learned -- appeared to have been the victim of "gang related" violence.
Sprawled on the pavement, Jones seemed "thin" for a football player, says Mani, who remembers "his black jeans hanging off him." Watching him -- bloody, bullet holes in his chest -- being loaded into an ambulance, Mani thought, "This is a kid."
That's when I'd called his cell phone. "There was my mom's voice. . . ," Mani recalls. "I cried because hearing it made me feel safe again. But . . . it felt unfair. [Jones] is dead, and his family members and friends are crying. . . .
"He was just a [expletive] kid."
As Jones was borne way, my kid -- who was born in Detroit when it was America's "murder capital" and who grew up in L.A. and outside Washington when those cities vied for the title -- started thinking:
About how "you watch these deaths on the news, and you don't blink." About how, as an admirer of director John Woo's guns-and-glamour cinema and Quentin Tarantino's couture killings in "Kill Bill," he'd never realized that sudden death is "nothing like a movie. . . . There's nothing beautiful or poetic about it."
After Saturday's events, he says: "I can't write a death without feeling I'm responsible in some way. Every bullet has to count. . . . What's the reverse of desensitization? I'm re-sensitized.
"Because you can't get that image out of your head."
Not that he's some born-again saint. "I'm not going to lie -- there is something cathartic about [film violence]," he admits. But "we're manipulated as an audience to feel nothing but anger toward the villain. . . . It's like, 'Yes, he deserves to die!' because of what we've seen him do. But movies only last two hours. . . . We don't experience the aftermath, the grief. . . .
"We only know what the creator is giving us: a villain or a good guy." At Saturday's shooting scene, "there were no villains, no good guys," he says. "Just this young body, laying on the porch."
On Wednesday night, Jones's friends, neighbors, coaches and members of his church gathered in the apartment entranceway where he died. Singing and trading memories, some said Jones had mentored younger athletes. He "sounded like a nice guy," Mani says.
But life isn't a movie. Some endings aren't neat or satisfying. "When you don't know what the guy who got shot did or the intention of the killer, all you're left with is a grieving family. And a dead young person," Mani says.
He's left with one more thing:
"I am never going to look at violence the same way."