It was on his fourteenth birthday that Dusty’s father decided he was old enough to own the gun. He’d been given a spring powered BB gun for his tenth birthday, and a pump action air rifle that shot led pellets for his twelfth. And now, on his fourteenth, a Sunday, the last day of spring break, it was waiting for him on the kitchen table when he came down for breakfast.
His father turned from the stove to watch.
Dusty didn’t see him, nor did he hear the sizzle of batter in the pan.
After spotting the gun on the table from the landing, the kitchen could have been on fire and still appeared a little bleak by comparison.
Dusty walked quietly to the table and pulled out a chair. Without hesitating or really thinking about anything at all, he laid the gun across his lap.
The .22 was heavy.
Picking it up, Dusty had only readied himself for the weight of his pellet gun and, unprepared, he nearly dropped it. They were practically the same size but instantly this was different. No plastic parts or cheap aluminum fittings. Just solid, darkly stained wood and black steel.
His fingers ran down the barrel, caressing the roughness of the unpolished metal. He vaguely tried to align its shadow with the pattern of the linoleum on the floor, but it wouldn’t match.
The tiles weren’t straight enough.
The gun was too perfect.
Just holding it was so much fun it felt like magic.
The smooth wood was exhilarating in his hands. Almost embarrassingly so. The hair on the back of his neck bristled like it had the day he’d found his sister’s bra thrown in with his clean laundry. It was practically obscene.
He curled a finger around the bolt and pulled the chamber open. It slid like only oil and tight tolerances could; precision in motion.
His hands began to shake and sweat and he had to set it back on the table.
“Did I do good?” his dad asked, bringing over a plate of steaming pancakes and a mug of hot chocolate.
“Thanks, Dad,” was all Dusty could say.
A scruffy kiss brushed against his forehead, “Happy Birthday.” His father was walking away and nearly made it back to the stove when the patio door flew open.
Dusty’s mother stood motionless in the doorframe for a full ten seconds with a stunned look on her face, in her muddy rubber boots, before she pulled her gardening gloves off and spiked them on the linoleum. “You gave it to him anyway?” she boiled.
Dusty’s bare toes clenched around the bottom rung of the chair and, as she stormed behind him into the kitchen, Dusty instinctually reached out to guard his treasure, though he only had enough courage to touch it with his fingertips.
“Yes,” his father answered. The calm in his voice wasn’t forced, but his shoulders rose tensely up around his neck as she encroached, and he turned away from her. “I told you I was going to.”
Dusty could feel his heart beginning to pound with the fear and anticipation of great loss.
His dad didn’t say anything more. He just picked up the batter bowl and poured into the pan. Dusty could tell he was nervous. He forgot to melt the butter in first. He’d told Dusty that was the key to making quality pancakes. Butter. Not spray. And the dollops he was pouring were in irregular sizes. Not his usual uniform three even circles.
Dusty was scared to watch and leaned his chin on the table in front of his pancakes, beside his outstretched arm, and began to imagine fleetingly hopeful outcomes.
“After everything we talked about last night? After that huge fight? You still gave it to him? You asshole! Fuck you, Carl!”
Dusty stared at the gun. Focusing. Hoping. Praying. Begging in his heart. Pleading silently with the universe. Possibly with no one at all. Desperately trying to convince himself that, if he never looked away from it, it couldn’t possibly be taken from him.
Just in front of the trigger, he noticed the latch that held in the magazine. He imagined flipping the gun over, and how he’d have to hold it to release it and reload without dropping anything. He wondered what a handful of bullets would feel like in his pocket. Would he even carry them like that? Maybe Dad would teach him some special, new way? What were they going to shoot? Pop cans? Like they had with the pellet gun? Would they walk to that same field in their neighborhood? Was it okay to walk down the street with a real gun like he had with his BB gun? He wanted to, so everyone could see it.
“Turn around and look at me!” his mother bellowed.
“No,” his father said. “He’s ready. I wanted to give it to him. And I told you I was going to.”
The fight went on that way for a few minutes. With Dusty’s mom erupting, livid at her husband for disobeying her wishes, tracking muddy footprints in circles around the kitchen; Dusty’s father avoiding her between flipping his oddly shaped pancakes and doing the dishes, sometimes muttering insincere niceties when he got cornered; and Dusty trying to remain as unnoticed as possible.
Regardless of his mother’s particularly moody scorn, the scene wasn’t unexpected. He’d recently observed that, on days when expectations were higher, things got unpredictable between his parents.
Or, more honestly, last night in the den while playing cards, his sister had pointed that out to him.
At first, Amy had used words and phrases he could hardly understand.
“During certain periods, especially on days of emotional significance, mom’s tendency to fall into fits of dysphoric mania collide with dad’s chronic minimisation of intention, creating a sensational vortex where no one’s needs are met and, in order for an episode like that to end, however overt or passive the aggression presents, both parties feel like someone has to lose.” But, once she’d broken it down for him, that mom was miserable and dad ignored her, it all felt so true that he could have sworn he’d noticed it himself.
“Yup,” Dusty had nodded agreeably, laying down three 7s and discarding a jack to win.
“Dusty,” she warned. “Make sure that the person losing between them isn’t you, okay?”
Amy was five years older than Dusty, a first year psychology major, and had told Dusty she could only stay home for the rest of the weekend. She’d explained that, if she didn’t return from break before the hordes of other freshmen, even though, for her, spring term didn’t officially start for another week, she wouldn’t be guaranteed new books. The margins of used books, she’d said, were full of apocryphal note taking, greased with dorm room residue, and smelled. They were, above all, to be avoided.
Whether he understood every single thing she ever told him or not, to Dusty, her words were canon. But, even so, Dusty couldn’t stand up. Not out of his chair. Not in defiance, next to his breakfast, in his pajamas, to tell his parents that he had done nothing to deserve this kind of exploitation. He just sat there, unchanging, not moving a muscle, afraid that any attention might lead him to trouble, and listened to his fate be decided for him.
Long enough for him to watch his hot chocolate go cold.
His pancakes no longer steamed.
And then it was quiet.
So intent on remaining inactive, Dusty had missed the cue that silenced the room. However, his parents, even in the midst of their bickering, had apparently found it impossible to ignore the bright purple boxer shorts and neon green tank top contrasting so explicitly against their beige carpeted stairs.
Dusty looked up to see his sister standing there smiling at him.
He smiled back.
She mouthed, “Happy Birthday,” to him like she was reminding him of a secret, one only Dusty was special enough to know, and all of the dread that had built up in him began evaporating. In the madness of the morning, the fact that it was his birthday had sort of wandered in and out of importance. But Amy had brought it back. Because that’s what she did.
His father made her a fresh plate of pancakes and gently set them on the table in front of her. Then he moved back to the kitchen and stood with Dusty’s mother, who seemed to just now have noticed the tracks she’d left in circles all over the linoleum, and went to the closet to pull out the broom and mop.
Dusty watched Amy cut into her pancakes, and, as she quietly, unconcernedly, ate, he admired her and puzzled over how she had become so different from their parents. She hadn’t said a word this morning. When she came down for breakfast she was completely calm. She didn’t glare or get mad at anyone. Not like their parents would have if they didn’t like what was going on. And she never did. At all. Ever. She didn’t berate anyone for being mean or try to teach them any lessons. She just walked in and ate her pancakes, and changed the world. Everywhere she went, everything she did, it was always like that. Everything was better when she was around. Like everyone just knew how to be a better person when she was with them. Like they remembered how to be happy. Just like today. Just now. It was like their parents had suddenly remembered that today was supposed to be happy, just because she walked into the room.
But she was going back to college tonight. And then what?
They finished eating while Mom mopped and Dad finished the dishes. He was very polite as he stepped, and even told her he loved her, as if to apologize without revisiting. And she said, “I love you, too,” as though nothing had actually even happened. And all the while, Dusty watched, keeping one eye on them and one eye on the rifle lying in the middle of the breakfast table.
His heart sank when his father walked over and picked it up.
Then soared when his mother stopped him.
“It’s okay,” she said. “If you think he’s ready, it’s okay.”
Before he knew what was happening or how to process his sudden good fortune, they were all in the car, driving over the bridge, with boots and sweatshirts pulled on over their pajamas, the gun in the trunk. The universe had heard his pleas. Heaven had reached down and granted him his wish.
His joy was dizzying as they drove away from the peninsula and onto the mainland. A few turns off the highway later, up a forested hill and onto a gravel road, they parked in the trees, in the dirt and pine straw. Dusty was so delirious, his sister had to poke him in the shoulder before he remembered to unbuckle and get out of the car.
In the shade of the pines, in the cold morning air, Dusty could see his breath, and the gravel crunched happily under his feet as he walked around. His dad pulled the gun out of the trunk from under a blanket and checked it again, for probably the fourth time that morning, that the safety was on and it was unloaded.
“We’ll get you a nice case for it this week,” he said smiling, delicately passing the rifle to him. “Do I need to tell you how careful you have to be with this?”
Dusty shook his head and his father let go.
Together, they all followed Dusty’s dad up the road and around the side of a freestanding steel-tube gate hanging from two 4x4 wooden posts. It had a No Trespassing sign zip-tied on the top bar, to which his father pointed out was, “Obviously for cars. We’re fine.”
His mother eyeballed it warily, but, clearly attempting to be a good sport, silently followed suit.
A few feet further on, they were out and into a beautiful field, walking in the sun. The gravel track continued straight, along the left of the clearing, to the far side where it disappeared up the hill and into the trees. Towering firs lined the field on all sides, with only a few patches of oak and maple mixed in, fighting their way out into the sunlight. A few optimistic sparrows dove around them, hopeful for a few early mosquitos. The grass was tall already and in various stages, from fresh growing blades to seed, all together green and brown and purple, soaked in dew and up to their knees. There were no trails or bare spots, and it felt like they might have been the first people to ever trudge into the middle.
Dusty was glad his father had made them wear their boots, and he smiled, remembering how his mother had not taken hers off this morning and how funny her making a mess of the kitchen seemed now. Thinking back about it, it all felt distant and pointless, like it had happened to strangers a million miles away and hundred years ago. Because their family was all together now, and everyone was warmly smiling, and this was fun, and it was his birthday.
When they reached the center, his father told them to stay, and he ran off ahead to the end of the field. He pulled from his jacket pocket and unfolded a large sheet of paper, and a few thumb tacks, and pinned the bullseye to an enormous maple tree growing at the edge of the forest. He came jogging back, the sides of his rubber boots clapping against his calves and his pockets jingling, and stopped to pull out a handful of tiny .22 cartridges.
Dusty clumsily turned the gun over and released the lever. He slowly loaded them into the magazine, one from the palm of his father’s hand at a time, until it was full. Dusty then pressed it back into the hollow belly of the gun, until it clicked into place, and looked up at his dad, absolutely thrilled.
Both his mom and Amy were watching from a few feet behind, bouncing excitedly in the cold.
“Now turn it over. Yep. Hold it with your left hand like this, under the barrel.” Dusty’s dad stood next to him and mimed everything he was explaining. “Now pull the bolt back. All the way. Right. That loads the first one into the chamber. Now let it go. Good. Now it’s loaded. You only have to do that the first time, after you load a fresh magazine. It will feed a new round into the chamber automatically after that.”
“What do you mean automatically?” his mother asked.
“It pulls a new round from the magazine by itself after you get it started,” his father answered over his shoulder, in teaching mode, unnoticing of the slight edge that had returned to his wife’s voice.
Dusty noticed, but was too enthralled to care.
Amy slipped her hand under their mother’s arm and squeezed into her lovingly.
“Now raise it up at the target. Good. And now turn the safety off just like your pellet gun. Perfect.”
Dusty was shaking with enthusiasm, vibrating in delight.
“Okay, hold it tight into your shoulder and aim for the center of the bullseye.”
Dusty lined everything up exactly like he had with the pop cans in the field by their house and gently pulled on the trigger; cold and metal where he had been used to plastic. Heavier. More tension. Perfect. He kept pulling slowly. Steadily. And, far before he was ready for anything to happen, the gun made a sound.
Just a crack.
It wasn’t the explosion he’d expected. Not a thundering fire. No kicking recoil. Just a small crack and the feeling of a gentle release. And the ting of a tiny piece of metal the size of a pencil butt flying out the side of the gun to his right.
“Did I break it?” he worried.
“No,” his father answered. “You just aimed a little too high. It’s not like your pellet gun.”
Dusty was confused for a second about what had actually happened and failed to comprehend his dad’s instructions.
“Cool,” Amy said encouragingly.
He looked at the target.
“You hit just above the paper,” his father said. “Try again.”
He lifted the gun to his shoulder and did everything he’d done before, only, this time, even more deliberately. More focused. He wasn’t shaking quite as much as the first. And was absolutely determined to do well.
“Just a little high again. Trying firing faster. Just keep pulling the trigger until you hit it.”
Dusty looked over at his dad, unsure.
“You don’t have to pause between shots. It’s semi-automatic. You can just keep shooting until you figure it out.”
He aimed again.
His mother cleared her throat.
Nothing. No visible signs of hitting the paper. But, there was a tiny spot forming just above it where he’d consistently hit the tree three times.
Not a single shot hit the paper, though all of them hit the tree.
“Carl. I don’t like this,” his mother said.
Clank. The last time he pulled the trigger the bolt flew open. He was empty.
“Okay, now be careful. And put the safety on. Right. Okay, when you flip it over, the part where the shell casings fly out. Yes, that part. That might be hot.”
“Carl, I really don’t like this.”
“What’s that, honey?”
His mother moved in close behind them, and Dusty could feel her watching. Staring. Scrutinizing what they were doing. Examining the situation. He popped the magazine out much quicker this time. And pushed the new cartridges in much faster. Before she’d said much of anything, he was finished and had the gun flipped back over. “Dad, can I move a little closer?”
“Sure,” he said, smiling and moving to come with him, but stopping abruptly when Dusty’s mother grabbed his arm.
“Listen, Carl,” she was saying as Dusty escaped a few feet away from them, closer to the maple tree. “I didn’t know it was going to be like this. Amy, go with Dusty, please.”
Dusty moved even closer to the target. He could hear his sister moving through the grass behind him. He was hesitant to shoot the gun again, afraid it would worsen whatever opinion his mother was evidently forming.
“It’s okay,” Amy whispered as she neared. “You’re doing great. Just relax. You can do this.”
“Do you think we could go just a little closer to it?” he asked her, trying not to think about his parents and really wanting to hit the bullseye.
“Yeah. Totally. Let’s do it.”
They walked together, Amy on his right, with the gun in his arms hanging to the opposite side, until they were no more than thirty feet from the target, equidistant from their parents.
He could see that the grass thinned at the tree line, nowhere near as thick as it had been in the middle of the field, revealing the damp naked earth, the ferns in the forest, and a mess of knotted tree roots. A robin glided down from the trees to their right, straight through between them and the maple, low to the ground, and landed hard in the dirt to their left to hunt for worms.
Dusty aimed at the bullseye, just like before, even more resolute to hit the target now that he was with his sister. She would be so impressed and happy for him if he hit it. He took a really deep breath. Calmed. And shot.
“I see it! You did it!” she laughed.
His heart welled up in his chest. There was a tiny rip in the paper where the bullet had passed through the yellow circle in the middle and into the tree. Just an inch above center. Confirmation that he hadn’t been doing it wrong. He just needed to relax. His method was fine and he didn’t need to change anything.
He could hear his mother’s voice getting louder and angrier behind them.
The wind blew. The grass swayed. And the robin hopped off the ground with one flap of its wings and glided back the way it had come, stopping in front of the maple. It hopped back and forth, lowering its head to the ground as it went.
Dusty looked up at his sister.
She looked back at him with two raised eyebrows and very pursed lips, half hiding a smile that Dusty understood to mean, “It’s your birthday. If you want to…”
He almost laughed out loud, and totally would have, had he not been afraid of scaring away the bird away.
He aimed as carefully as he’d ever aimed at anything. He’d never shot a bird before. Not with his pellet gun. Not with anything. His dad or mom had always been with him, and he’d never had the opportunity or even thought to try with them around. Now that it was in front of him, he felt that it just might be the singularly most exhilarating thing he’d ever thought to do.
The robin hopped a few inches. Then was still. Then looked at the ground. Then was still again.
Dusty, completely sure of his technique and what was about to happen, slowly pulled the trigger.
Here it comes.
The robin fluttered, and then hopped over to the patch of earth behind it where it looked as though someone had just flicked out a chunk of chocolate cake with their finger. The robin stuffed its beak down into the hole, pinched a tiny worm out, and swallowed it.
Amy snorted, trying to quietly laugh through her nose, and turned serious again to look back and see what their parents were doing.
Dusty frowned at the hole he’d made and the very undead robin, and then turned back to look with her. They were still fighting. Mom, getting even louder. Dad, kicking at a clump of grass.
Amy shrugged and turned back, nodding in the direction of the bird with an interested smile.
Dusty silently agreed with a step forward, and they both tracked as quietly as possible toward the trunk of the maple and the objective of their hunting party.
Twenty feet away.
This time they were too close and the gun was too loud for the robin to mistake as innocuous. The shot barely missed behind its neck, flecking out another bit of dirt just over its shoulder, and the robin fled.
But only up into the lowest branches of the maple.
They could see it perched there, even in the shade of the forest, and Dusty moved in as close as he dared.
He could hear his mother yelling behind them. She was beginning to swear. They didn’t have long.
He aimed and stepped closer with the gun raised. He could only see the bird now, as focused on it as anything he ever had been in his life. He stepped carefully, out of the grass, onto the flat soft earth. Only looking through the sight of the gun. Amy was behind him. Waiting for him to succeed on his own. Or maybe afraid that two people would be more likely to scare the bird away. He didn’t know.
Sure of his aim.
The bolt flew open.
The bird fell to the ground like it had been about to fly away, but, just at the last moment, had forgotten how.
And that’s when Dusty saw the house.
Directly behind where the bird had been, up the hill and deep in the trees, there was a red cedar deck that wrapped around a light green house with bay windows and a black shingled roof covered in moss.
Dusty’s stomach did a nervous somersault.
If he had been any closer he would surely have hit it, he thought, maybe even accidentally breaking one of those huge windows. But he was positive, from here, that the bullets would have fallen far short. After all, it was over a hundred yards away.
He walked up and found the bird on the ground, lying flat with its wings unfolded between the tree roots. He was standing over the robin, looking at the blood, as red as his own, when his sister walked up behind him and he felt the first wave of nausea.
“Did you get it?” she asked, her hands in her pockets, stepping over a fern.
Dusty pointed with the end of his barrel at the fallen lump of feathers and feet. He pushed its beak over to show off for his sister, the head of his trophy, but the bird’s neck turned loosely and the head fell limp to one side, and Dusty felt remorse sharply fill him and spread in his body like the chills of a fever. Suddenly recognizing the death he’d caused, he coughed and choked, and his soul felt like it was slinking out of his toes. He sniffed and began to cry. “Here. You take it,” he said, attempting to hand the gun to his sister while wiping his eyes.
“Oh, Dusty. No,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s yours.”
He held the gun, but no longer with any affection, and futilely kicked a few leaves and branches over the life he now so regretted having taken. There was no more fun in him as he trudged from under the tree and back to his fighting parents.
Amy followed, rubbing his back and whispering soft encouragements and laments.
They were all standing there together, mom yelling, dad shaking his head in disgust, Amy’s hand on Dusty’s shoulder, and Dusty gently sobbing, when they heard the sirens coming. They stood huddling in the field as three Tillamook County Sheriff cars tore up the gravel road and flew out into the long grass. The cars’ suspensions bounced over the uneven ground, and they all watched in horror as the patrol cars skidded and lurched, surrounding their family.
Two of the deputies exploded out of their vehicles and hid behind their doors, lights flashing and guns drawn. The last car’s door was kicked open but the deputy stayed in his vehicle to use the megaphone, “Lay the gun on the ground and, all of you, put your hands on your heads.”
Dusty dropped his gun immediately, thankful that someone had finally given him permission to rid himself of it, and listened to it heavily hit the ground. He didn’t care to watch it disappear into the blades of grass. He didn’t care if he ever saw it again.
He put his hands on his head, closed his eyes, and puked.
They were all handcuffed and put into cars. He rode with his dad in the back of one, his sister and mom in another. And only later that afternoon were they reunited; in a room with the sheriff where they all sat down and were asked to explain why Dusty had been allowed to fire eight bullets through the walls of the Chad family’s dining room.
Then Dusty’s life was shucked and torn into pieces.
Because, in the end, it didn’t matter that the sheriff had believed his whole story.
Mr. Chad had been watching the pregame when his television suddenly exploded in a hurricane of tiny bullets, and was far too furious to believe for a second that it hadn’t been on purpose.
The county prosecutor seemed to agree and pressed charges.
They ripped him out of school a day later.
Firing a weapon at an inhabited dwelling was a felony. He might have escaped punishment if they’d been able to prove it was an accident, and he hadn’t already been breaking the law. But, as it was, he had rapidly fired eight rounds into someone else’s home, while they were occupying that very same room, and all while trespassing on clearly marked private property.
The only redeeming value in his testimony seemed to be his age and that his remorse was so severe that he had vomited several times during the trial.
The judge sentenced him to a full year at Camp Necarney where he attended school classes in the morning, worked for the parks department while wearing an orange reflective vest during the afternoons, and slept in the barracks with his fellows—shoplifters and graffiti artists—at night.
His parents were allowed to visit on the weekends. And there, on their twelfth visit, they told him about the divorce. His mother blamed his father for everything, and she would be receiving full custody of Dusty once he was released.
From then on, he never so much as squished a spider without remembering that day, and regretting the robin, and eventually being flooded with guilt and remorse. The nausea would always return. And, reliably, so would his lunch.