There’s nothing on earth quite so dispassionate as a gun.
That’s because in reality, it’s just a tool, like any other, and what matters is how it’s used, how it’s wielded. The thing itself has very little power. Like a camera, it has no judgement, no means with which to make a decision, no point of view of its own. It just is. It doesn’t do anything.
And yet… it feels like it should.
I hold the gun in my hand, feel the weight of it, the coldness. And something else. A vague sense of anticipation. But this is my emotion, not the gun’s. The gun is empty, save for the bullets.
I fill in the rest.
I forget sometimes that my brother is into guns until I stumble on one in the back shed or in the garage. He hides them in random places—some place out of reach where only he usually goes. He isn’t particularly careful about it, but it’s just him and Sarah out here in the country, no kids. And so his collection dots his property like spiders might congregate behind forgotten things, just waiting to be of use.
Just waiting to jump out and scare you.
I set the pistol back on the shelf and return to the task at hand.
The lawnmower needs me again. It’s always needing me. But I’m not really doing this for it.
I’m doing it for the beer.
There are certain activities a man does that require a cold one nearby. Grilling a dead animal over open flames. Greased up and under the hood of some muscle car.
Fixing a shitty lawnmower. Yet again.
I haven’t cut the grass all summer. I’ve tried. The blade needs changing is all, or sharpening. One of the two. It’s not a difficult job, I always tell myself. And so I head out back, pull the beast from the old yellow shed, flip the whole damned thing over and get right up under the mower deck; I pry the matted swaths of tawny-green grass, thick like shag carpet, from every nook and cranny, trying to find the nut I need, trying to simply clean things up. But then my allergies ignite, and I reach for that cold one, and I find myself distracted again, smoking a cigarette and staring out into nothing.
It’s usually about that time that Alex finally shows up, whistling a tune and walking across the back acreage, bleached corn husks crunching like bones beneath his feet. He grins that boyish grin of his.
“You’re late,” I yell to him. He shrugs, as he always does, though his faded blue jeans, blood-red t-shirt and worn baseball cap speak more to his permanently casual nature than any shoulder could.
“Sorry, brother,” he replies as he reaches the edge of the field. “I got held up.”
“I know,” I say. “Your wife called.”
I notice now that Alex is already eying the bottle in my hand.
“Got one of those for me?” he asks.
It’s my turn to shrug. “Maybe. But ya gotta earn it.”
Alex looks down at the mower now, sprawled there pitifully in the grass behind the shed, all up-skirt. He scowls back at me. “At least let me catch up.”
I grin and pull a beer from near a stack of old tires. It’s my on-deck; I was gonna crack it in no time, but I’m a nice guy. Besides, there’s plenty more in the mini fridge.
I toss the beer to Alex. He pops the top and takes a long, refreshing swig.
“That’s money,” he says, wiping his lips with the back of his wrist. He appraises the situation. “So what’s on the docket today?”
I look at him then for the first time. Really look at him. I hesitate too long, though, like an actor who’s forgotten his lines, and it confuses him. So I kick the lawnmower, as dispassionate as the gun. There’s no real feeling in it; I do it because it’s what I do next to keep the scene moving.
“The usual,” I say and take another drag. I stare at him, afraid of what comes next. I try to hide the apprehension in my eyes. It’s impossible to tell if it works.
His smile fades from his face like a setting sun, perplexed by my seriousness. Silence settles between us, the type of silence that only arrives between family members when shits about to hit the fan.
Alex shifts his weight and clears his throat. “Okay…”
I plaster on a smile, break the tension in an instant with a slap to his shoulder. “But first I gotta show you something.”
I turn and walk away, around to the front of the shed, gesturing Alex to enter before me. He does, and I go in after.
“So what’s up?” he asks.
Without answering, I take a final drag from the cigarette that I forgot I was smoking, flick it out the entryway, and close the shed doors on us, inviting in darkness.
* * *
When I open the doors again, we’re no longer outside. The lawn, the lawnmower, the sky above and the sound of birds have all been left behind. And I’ve opened not shed doors, but the heavy double doors to a church, and they are somehow glass instead of wood and I can see right through them, and somehow we are bathed in the candle-orange glow of sanctuary lighting. Just like that, the scene has changed. Alex shakes his head, standing there stunned, though I am already entering the narthex.
“Sweet Jesus,” he whispers. “That was gnarly.”
Sweet Jesus indeed. I’m at the back of the narthex already, looking up at a stained glass window: a colorful depiction of Jesus the Shepard, tending his flock, a little lamb at his feet. The sunlight kaleidoscopes across my shirt. Alex is standing by me now.
“Where are we?” he asks. I smile, wistful.
“We’ve been here before.”
“Yesterday. And the day before. And the day before that…” I let my voice trail off; Alex has already moved on, wandering towards the center aisle and into the sanctuary proper, where the whole circular space opens up with its high ceiling. I turn and watch him. He looks around, like a child waking from a dream. The beautifully ornate organ, its grand pipes reaching towards the heavens, sits quiet to the right; the sacristy and sound booth balcony to the left. Golden butterflies hang from the ceiling on wires, shimmering in the light from candles and from a skylight far overhead. He has yet to spot the woman in black, though, sitting in the front row, has yet to hear her barely whispered prayers, her lips quivering. I begin to follow him, slowly, my eyes on the empty wooden cross hanging behind the pulpit. I question the existence of anything higher, as I always do in these moments before Alex sees her, bracing myself for when the scars are punctured again, pierced like a spear to my abdomen.
Preparing myself to be crucified.
“Who’s she?” Alex says simply, nodding his head towards the woman he now kneels in front of. He’s studying her face, there behind a sheer black veil, her eyes closed. Tears mar her cheeks, her makeup. She clutches a cross in her lap.
“You really don’t remember anything, do you?” I marvel. He usually figures it out on his own.
“Why’s she here?”
I take a deep breath. “It’s a funeral,” I say, my voice already beginning to shake. “For her husband. She can’t bring herself to leave yet.”
Alex stands and walks towards me, that boyish smile playing at his lips. He thinks I’m messing with him. “Okay, smart ass, then where’s the coffin?” My heart plummets even more. I truly hate this part.
“Oh it’s there,” I explain, pointing towards the pulpit. “By the flowers. I’m not surprised you can’t see it, though. The last time you were here, you were inside it.”
He whips his head back to me, his eyes wide, filled with confusion. “What did you say?”
I want to grab him and shake him, like the wind shakes the dead leaves from a tree. I want to scream in his face. But I keep my cool, resigned to sadness rather than anger, exasperation rather than outrage.
“You’re so clueless this time around,” I say, shaking my head. “You’re fading. Don’t you remember anything? Don’t you remember her?”
I point at the woman in black. Alex goes back to her and again kneels, studying her face again, searching for some sort of clue.
All at once, like a dam breaking, realization floods over him.
“Sarah?” he whispers, still not believing his own recognition. “Sarah honey?”
He’s piecing it together now, what it all means. I watch it unfold like a map in front of me. He rises, slowly turns back towards the pulpit. He sees the casket. I tell by the way his shoulders shudder as the breath escapes him. He can see it all now.
He turns on me then. “No way, man. No way. This is stupid.” He charges towards me, determined to pass. “Let’s go, you’re freaking me the fuck out.” But I place a firm hand on his chest to keep him from exiting the sanctuary. He looks at me like I’ve just plunged a knife into his back, an ultimate betrayal. “Come the fuck on, man!”
“Every time I remember what it was like to lose you,” I say, my voice low, my words measured. “I try to figure out some way to stop myself from reliving it, to say goodbye once and for all.” I look the dead in the eyes. “But I can’t. I’m sorry.”
He looks back at me, tears welling in his eyes, and he laughs without meaning to, the nervous laughter of the crazed. “You’re so full of shit,” he assures. But he’s really only trying to assure himself.
“I wish I was,” I say with sincerity, for I mean it more than any other words I’ve ever spoken. “But I’m telling you, Alex, you’re gone.” I put my head on his forehead as he looks down, overwhelmed. “You’re gone.”
He stumbles away from me like a drunk, like someone woozy after exiting a Gravitron. He clutches his head, looks back towards the coffin and cries out an unearthly, animal sound. I speak to fill the space inside my mind and in the room, pacing away from Alex as I do.
“You creep up on me whenever I’m alone. At work. At the store. When I’m out back trying to fix that stupid fucking lawnmower of yours for the eight-hundredth time. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing. Wherever I go, there you are. Invading my head. And like water circling a drain, I sink back into this memory… right back to this wretched day.”
I reach the center of the sanctuary, Alex still behind me, and I look down. There on the chair to my left sits a pistol. The pistol from the shed.
There’s never, not once, been a gun in this scene. Something, somehow, has chipped the cycle.
But what does it mean?
I turn back to Alex and away from the intruding firearm. There’s silence between the three of now, heavy as new-fallen snow and just as cold. Alex’s eyes look lost in some cascade of emptiness, glassy and reflective in the candlelight. The gun looks heavy and cold. Sarah has vanished.
Finally Alex looks at me.
“How did I die?” he asks. I swallow hard.
“You were held up,” I say. “Shot in a robbery.”
“My God,” he moans, reaching for his chest. I think for a moment he must feel it, that phantom pain of the bullet passing through his ribcage. He staggers again, whirling. “My God, why? I can’t be… this just… fuck!” And I’m there with him now, catching him as he collapses into my arms, sobbing into my chest. I hold him as my own tears come.
“What do I do, Jesse?” he asks, his voice muffled, buried in my shirt. “Tell me what to do.”
“We’ll figure something out,” I lie. “Maybe we can…”
And then it hits me.
“Try something new.”
He looks up at me like only a little brother can then, expectantly. His cheeks are flushed, his eyes red. He sniffs the snot away, wipes his nose with the back of his wrist. He looks so young. I forgot how young he really was when his light went out. My words have comforted him some, and for that, I suppose, I’m grateful.
I turn from him gently, making sure he can stand on his own, and walk back towards the weapon. The tool. The one instrument I may be able to use to finally rid myself of the revolving, revolting, repeating nightmare of a memory. I pick up the pistol and turn to face Alex. He has also turned, is staring at the coffin again, letting it all settle in on him like soil into the grave. His breathing is slow, calm.
After a moment, he looks back at me. It takes him only a blink to see the gun in my hand. His face flushes with fear and confusion, an expression that rips through my senses like the coldest winter wind imaginable. I’m hollowed out by it, and by the fact that I caused it, even if none of this is real at all.
“What are you doing?” he breaths. I want to run.
But I remain resolute. I lift the pistol.
“Trying something new.”
* * *
The gunshot still rings in my ears as I swing open the wooden doors. There’s no pistol in my hand, no sign of Alex. I’m back in the yard again, alone.
I reach for the mini fridge near my right, grab another cold one, and exit the shed. The day is as bright and as calm as I had left it.
And the lawnmower needs me again. It’s always needing me. But I’m not really doing this for it.
I sip my beer and light another smoke. I inhale deeply.
It’s then I see Alex, whistling a tune and walking across the back acreage, bleached corn husks crunching like bones beneath his feet. He grins that boyish grin of his, as if I hadn’t just shot him in the chest with his own pistol; as if nothing’s happened. For him, nothing had.But it had happened to me. Again and again and again. In reality, Alex is gone.
“You’re late,” I yell to him, obligatory, my voice fit to crack under the weight of the tears I’m choking down. He shrugs, as he always does, though his faded blue jeans, blood-red t-shirt and worn baseball cap speak more to his permanently casual nature than any shoulder could.
“Sorry, brother,” he replies as he reaches the edge of the field.
“I got held up.”