They huddled among the oaks at the west side of the park. There’s a citrus colored streetlight on that corner where they divided the Roman candles between them in even numbers. Some of them made these quick defensive looks over their shoulders like they were a clutch of birds. I was walking Almo under the same color glow at the opposite end of the block and I would say that I was thinking about nothing but that’s not true. Those fleeting seconds before the explosion, I was without a doubt thinking about how I was going to explain to my daughter’s fiancé how I named the dog after a character in an ancient Roman poem. And then my hearing went and there were parts of those kids dropping out of the sky like heavy confetti. Almo jolted stiff-legged from the sound and vibration of it. My hearing went away, replaced by that high frequency thing. Some of the fireworks were still shooting from the black middle of this mess. It was a mess. I hate that it happened. They just wanted to have fun. They just wanted to be kids. Now they’re just memories of kids. I say I hate it. More like I hate that it happened to me but the rest of it is too sad to ponder at length. Too sad.
She’s dead. Or dying. No. She is dead. And she will always be dead. She will never grow old. She will never disappoint or be disappointed. Not with her looks or her age. She will always be this young. The heartache of wrinkles and blemishes will never find her. Heartbreak will never slow her down. Hate for her enemies will never guide her. She will never compete for all those frivolous things that consume other girls. She will never know betrayal. She will never receive retributions for whatever variety of innocent mistakes. She is dead. She is dead and now I will carry all her potential with me. I am certain this burden will always be mine. I am her now, in some unavoidable capacity. The blood is on my hands and her lost potential is bound to me forever. She is dead now and forever.
Ya know, even though my Dad seemed as though he could turn on us, he never did. Always fair. Always willing to listen. Reasonably reliable. I will miss him and his face. I hate that I think of how his face changed overnight. At dinner he’s my dad. At lunch he’s an old man. It scares me. I know how that sounds but you know what I mean. Then I think about other things. Things that don’t weigh as much. I love him. I always lapse into a sense of him still being around. Not in any incorporeal sense but you know, like he's in the neighborhood. More in the way I speak about him. Like, I love my dad.
A skulking darkness swallowed the gate and the soft hills of the valley as the horses sidled past the two men at the rail. Gaston had just lost faith in his grip on his tickets and shoved them into his pocket. Roberts—now known wider as El Correcaminos—wasted several minutes describing his most recent financial failure before Gaston shooshed him into silence and pointed at the horse with the large red six on his flank. That’s our boy, he said. He’ll pay today. Roberts dragged his thumb across the number on his ticket, wanting to elaborate on his difficulties. But Gaston spoke first. Sometimes, Gaston told him, things are not as detrimental as they seem. El Correcaminos offered him a worried expression. Gaston described the vacuum of space and two galaxies wrapping around one another in cosmic collision. From our vantage, the violence of this event is obvious. Then he estimated the millions of stars that populated the clusters as they whizzed past one another in the fusion. Those gargantuan structures racing headfirst at the speed of light will produce very few collisions, he said. They are so large and so porous that the violence is an illusion, Roberts. El Correcaminos couldn’t calculate Gaston’s expectation for the metaphor and he felt sure this description held no sway over current circumstances but he dared not contradict the patriarch, his missing little finger a constant reminder of their hierarchy.
In that black place on the river where even the sun could not penetrate, Jacob stood knee deep in the current near the bank. He gripped the backpack with his thumb between his shoulder and the strap. The school administration would be calling his parents soon. He had to start moving but reflection heaped upon him in the importance of this moment stopped him. This act could never be undone. A new and inescapable beginning lay before him and he stopped for a brief respite, not hesitation but recognition. Reverence. Dr. Scott had shown him the scripture and explained the flaw in the theology, the thousands of years of misinterpretated text. Hell did not exist. It was a fabrication run amok and the result opened for Jacob the clearest picture of reality he had ever known. If the result of sin was oblivion then he would gladly let his lust for revenge hurl him there. Destruction struck him as a weak and toothless punishment. Destruction meant rest.
Bits of grass fall to the pavement from the green streaks on his calf high socks. He’s shaking his head and flicking his wrist in the air beside him, complaining about the emergency vehicles in the alley. Third time this year, he tells me. At least there wasn’t a child this time. I crane my neck above his shoulder to see more of the bustle behind his house through the open fence gate. Some college kid, he says. You remember the mother and her kids a couple of months ago, he reminds me. They’re buying it in the neighborhood, I tell him. He concurs and stamps his foot then he surveys the block like he might catch a glimpse of the crime. He grumbles that if he knew where they were, he’d have to deal with it himself. Something about duty and righteousness. I want to remind him how old he is and maybe give him a few examples of how he could get hurt but why really? He never leaves this yard if he’s not locked in his truck, headed to a buffet somewhere. He’ll bark and fume over OD’s in his alley but he won’t do anything about it. He’s no better off than that dead kid back there. Hell, statistically, they both voted for Trump.
He said it because he is weak and vain. His gamble gave instant reward, attentive faces, yearning postures. All eyes leveled on him. He told them the outlandish story was true. He said he was there when it happened and the questions began. I could see the embellishments flocking in his eyes. I saw fingers of fire rush through his audience. Some of them ran off to tell others and soon others arrived. By this time their speaker had grown integral to the tale. The pregnancy of the extraordinary moment bade me to cling to him, counsel him on this sort of power.
There are dogs on the trail. I count their prints while waiting for her to change clothes. I suggest the hike can wait until after lunch but she insists. I gesture to the silt on the path. She stands for moment with her head aslant. I can’t see her face. With an abrupt sling of her wrist she tells me she’ll be fine. She says it’s time to move on. The very words her brother told her a month ago. We stride on our heels in descent of the soft rail drawn in a seine wave across the face of the cliff. The beams of the young sun burn opaque and appear supported in space by the spear tip shapes of the pines. She is ahead of me. I’ve spent much of the hike focused on her ass in the denim shorts but also checking her composure. There’s no trembling. No skittishness. Until the bark. It echoes through the cathedral of the ravine as if uttered from something supernatural. She freezes. An ocean tide of air moves the trees then fades into a silence as still as her pose. Another bark. She turns to me, the wig out of place just enough to be noticeable, and she shakes her tears at me as if she fears she will never be able to move again.
I notice the stars. It’s not normal to see stars here. I've waited on the corner for the three blondes and the hairdresser for too long. When they arrive, drunker than I had left them, the gay fellow runs his hand front to back over the Mohawk he shaved on my head back in their hotel room. The girls grab me and cut a path through the crowd sloshing between the barricades, all the while complaining about a thirty block power outage due south. That explains the stars and I point them out but they didn’t seem to care. As I had predicted to myself hours ago, we're in a hip-hop club where the girls' presence causes immediate conflict. An angry woman smashes a bottle into a man’s head just for talking to one of them. Not long after this, a guy approaches me and says he sincerely thought I was Chuck Liddell. I cannot look like Chuck Liddell. Not in here. Not right now.
Stoneman Douglas High School. Another disgusting attack on defenseless people, children. Another deranged individual living in a reality he felt compelled to share with the rest of us. It’s a shameful waste. The victims of these crimes inhabit my thoughts. I sympathize with them, empathize with them… I all the –ize with them but no more than I do with the thousands of people who die annually by handguns in this country. Over 2,000 children under the age of 12 died by guns, in general, between 2014 and 2017, according to The Week. All of it is tragic and horrifying and senseless and nearly unforgivable.
We have allowed this to continue far too long without addressing the actual problem. I am sorry to report to some of you that an “assault rifle” is not the actual problem. School shootings are not the actual problem. Delusional individuals are not the actual problem. Delusional political organizations are not the actual problem. I argue that the weapon—the GUN—is not quite the actual problem. These are miniscule strata compared to the actual problem. The bullets. The bullet is the physical menace and the only challenger up to the task (now that “thoughts and prayers” has finally suffered what I hope is the end of its fifteen minutes) is science.
Laws—legislation, decrees, commandments—are in fact overrated deterrents. No law ever stopped murder. No law ever stopped rape. No law ever stopped thievery or swindling. As much as I love and trust Steven Pinker, laws bully the stats but they never summon enough strength to stop any crime of any kind. Maybe if legislators gave the innate futility of law a little more thought, they could use a little more common sense—but that’s neither here nor there. Within the borders of the USA, we have passed the event horizon with the amount of weapons and munitions. There is no legislating them out of public existence. They are here to stay and we ignore their ubiquity at our peril. This is an arms race the bullet has been winning for hundreds of years. Our creeping retreat to acquiescence is almost complete.
One wonders if by some whipcrack in the fabric of time my grandfather’s generation—the Greatest Generation (minus all the steady-as-she-goes racism and misogyny)—faced this particular shift in American culture instead of us, could things be different? Raised amidst the demands of the Great Depression, they seemed capable of thinking through the most difficult problems with subdued glee. They won WWII by splitting an atom. They kick started NASA and the moon shots of the 60’s and 70’s. All of it by either outwitting their opponent or embracing some angular ingenuity. I suspect the folks of that generation would see the actual problem, weaponize the available technology, and find a way to beat the bullet.
Maybe… I don’t know…
What I do know is we should be thinking our way out of the problem. We have young, innovative tech available to us that if given the proper focus could make the bullet’s job exponentially more difficult. Graphene is shows promise. Engineered graphene could easily become a part of every article of clothing on the planet. There are other technologies. There are out of the box ideas yet to come. Comics and science fiction have been dreaming of ways to stop bullets since the first ball shot from a blunderbuss. There are ideas and technology out there ripe for weaponization. I find ultra-rich weirdoes like Elon Musk fascinating but compared to the bullet problem commercializing space travel is a piece of piss. Save some lives. Change this world before we go find another one.
Buy Skitz O'Fuel's novel That Night Filled Mountain
available on Amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle.
River of Blood, a novel about anarchism, atheism, racism, violence, family, and corruption.
Short stories like Finding Romulus' Rome, The Blood, & The Weapon are FREE in the Books section.
Unless noted, all pics credited to Skitz O'Fuel.