My dad always cleaned his guns in the garage, where he kept most of the ammo. After duck hunting, he’d sit on the concrete floor with his legs out and body hunched over the stock of the gun, which rested on his thigh. Every time he did that, he told me how important it was to keep guns clean and to always make sure the gun was unloaded the minute you finished hunting.
When I was about ten, while my dad and I were hunting, he hung his hat on a branch and shot it from about 20 feet away. He wanted to make a point: “Look at the damage the gun can do to this hat. Think about what it can do to a person. Guns aren’t toys.”
His hunting hat had about an eight-inch hole blown through it. I ran my fingers along the edges of the frayed material.
Dad was out of town again. And the babysitter was off buying our weekly groceries, or so she said. No one home except me and two 14-year-old boys. My brother and his best friend, Brad Loftis. His name got my heart jumpy but having him in the house made it climb trees and jump off waterfalls.
Ralph and Brad laughed and talked upstairs. Everything buzzed. I turned down “I Love Lucy,” my favorite afternoon rerun, so I could hear what Brad and Ralph were saying, what they were laughing at, and who they were talking about, but I only heard flashes of girls’ names — Bridget, Lisa, Candy — all eighth graders, all girls two years older than me and prettier. I wanted Brad to like me. I waited downstairs, admiring my pink painted toenails in the sunlight until I thought I waited long enough to go upstairs and ask if I could hang out with them.
I knocked on Ralph’s door, then peeked my head into his room. Ralph dropped the needle on The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” again. A husky voice filled the upstairs.
“What are you guys doing?” I asked as cool as I could, but my heart leapfrogged.
Brad watched me. He nodded at me and then looked me up and down, without Ralph noticing, but making sure I noticed.
“Leave,” Ralph told me. “Before I hurt you.”
My brother and I had bedrooms on the top floor of the four-story townhouse my dad had just bought. Ralph’s room had the balcony overlooking the street, mine, the bigger closet. My dad’s bedroom was six steps below ours, and ten steps below that was our kitchen, dining room, and a bathroom. Beneath all that, on the first floor, our living room.
A week before Brad and Ralph blared The Clash upstairs, they’d hung out in my brother’s room late into night. Impossible to ignore, their whispers and laughter bounced around his room and in my head as I curled up on my twin bed. I wanted to get up to see what they were doing but I was too afraid they’d push me out or make fun of me. I couldn’t sleep, either. And I couldn’t stop thinking about Brad. In my house. Near my body. Brad.
Halfway through the night, in the heavy darkness, a creaking sound made me roll over to look at my door. It slowly opened. He stood in the doorway. He glowed from the hallway light behind him. His blue jeans drooped, his black t-shirt gaped open at the neck from a small tear. His body, wiry from all the swimming and surfing he did, looked bigger from the shadows.
I didn’t say a word, but my whole body went electric.
He tiptoed closer. I stayed on my back, on the mattress’s edge, my arm reaching out, but not toward Brad, toward the floor. He crawled onto my twin bed, on the side closest to the wall, as if that opening already belonged to him. He lay on his belly, smiling at me. Then he took my pillow, wrapped his arms around it and said, “Thanks.” Nothing more. The street light from outside cast shadows on him. I saw his eyes, his mouth, his smile, but only in blocks: a block of light, a block of dark.
I’d never had a boy in my bed before.
I watched him, waiting. I wanted him to kiss me. I wanted him to tell me he liked me. I wanted him to be my boyfriend.
Suddenly, he rolled onto his side facing me, propped himself up on the pillow with one hand, and started to rub my body with his free hand. Everywhere. Up and down, across my chest, over my stomach, in between my legs, fumbling over my pajamas. He did it fast, sloppy, without stopping on any one part of me. We kissed quickly a few times but it felt more like he bumped his lips into mine.
He wasn’t this way before — that one time he kissed me or the other time he yanked down my top. Maybe because he and Ralph had snuck into my dad’s liquor cabinet those times. They did that a lot.
“I gotta go,” he said. I don’t know if Ralph called him or what happened. My dad was away again. Brad squirmed toward the foot of my bed, plunked his feet on the floor, and walked out without another word.
That was then. Now when Brad came over, he acted like nothing had ever happened between us, so after Ralph demanded that I leave his room, I turned around just outside his door to see if Brad watched me walk away from him. He didn’t.
I opened the door to my bedroom; everything was pink and white striped. My bedspread, the walls, and even the fake flowers outside my window were pink then white, pink then white. The first duck I shot, a hen pintail, was mounted like it was flying across my pink wall. I shot that duck myself. My dad was so proud he gave me a 410 for my birthday. It stayed in the back of my closet, unloaded.
The first time Brad saw the pintail, he squeezed my bicep and called me tough. But I wasn’t tough. I just pointed the gun where my dad told me to.
I sulked down the stairs, slumping on the beige carpeting in the living room and turning the TV back on.
Brad and Ralph stomped around upstairs, their footsteps now in my dad’s room, just above me. The closet door slid open. That’s where my dad kept his guns and some of his ammo. The sound vibrated through the ceiling. A thud. I looked up at the ceiling. I hoped I heard the babysitter open the garage door. Nope, the next-door neighbor.
Ricky Ricardo and Fred Mertz raced into the Ricardos’ kitchen with their hands flying because the rice they were cooking exploded.
I wanted to go upstairs to tell Ralph and Brad they weren’t supposed to be in Dad’s room, but they’d ignore me.
Ricky and Fred ran around the kitchen in circles trying to clean up their mess. Rice poured all over the stove and floor.
A noise pulled me out of my TV reverie. I looked up. Brad and Ralph stood against the wooden railing that overlooked the living room. They watched me. Their backs were to the dining room table. Brad’s blonde hair glinted in the sunlight. Neither of them moved from the railing.
Brad was gripping my dad’s double-barrel 20-gauge in his right hand and his left hand held onto the railing. My stomach jumped. I didn’t know if the gun was loaded or not.
My brother stayed still beside Brad, who was silent, expressionless. They watched me and I watched them, my eyes darting back and forth between the two of them.
Brad leaned toward me with a grimace, his lanky torso tilting over the railing, his mouth contorting. He lifted the gun, positioned one hand on the stock, the other on the trigger. He held the shotgun in his arms like a hunter about to shoot.
He leveled the gun right at my head. The holes of the barrel pointed at me. They were only 10 feet away.
I wanted a response. I wanted that moment where he put the gun down and said, “Just kidding.”
But he didn’t say a word. He kept the gun on me. He looked down the barrel, focused.
My eyes widened. I leaned away. I sucked in my breath and held it at the top of the inhale. I kept looking at him, waiting for him to soften, to remember that he had been in my bed.
I looked at my brother again. His face showed nothing. The only thing I saw in his face was anger because his cheeks were flushed and his lips were closed, his mouth pinched shut.
Brad kept the gun pointed at me. I looked at the two barrels. I counted them. One, two.
He pulled the trigger.
Everything in me jumped. Everything.
Everything in me still jumps when I think about this moment 36 years later.
Then, there was silence, except the echo of the quick click. The sound of the click echoed for a long time.
I said nothing. The blue fabric of my romper wrinkled as I folded into myself. My heart and breath crashed into my stomach. I wrapped my arms around my knees. I shrank down more, trying to get lower, to blend into the carpeting. The room felt enormous, empty, like the ceiling had disappeared.
Ralph and Brad laughed at me. They called me a baby, a chicken. When they turned to walk away, Brad pulled the gun to him and rested it against his body, carrying it by the butt with the barrel up, leaning against his shoulder — like my dad did after a good day of hunting.
I never told my father about what Brad and Ralph did that day.
And once my dad realized how often he would be out of town for business, he installed a gun vault. Secured to the garage floor, the lacquered maroon fireproof gun vault couldn’t be stolen or broken into. The vault’s beauty surprised me, especially the scrolling design around the door and the lock. Only my dad and his secretary knew the combination. This reassured my dad. It didn’t reassure me much. Ralph and Brad could still get into anything else, like booze, knives and Turpentine.
A few years ago, I saw Brad in a grocery store parking lot. He wore a yellow beanie low, almost covering his eyes, his skinny frame still swallowed up by his clothes. He walked so close to me that he could have reached out and touched me. I saw him, then his grin, but I stepped back, or rather, aside, and kept walking. I could have said Hello to him since we’d been neighbors for years, since I had once been good friends with his little sister, and since he had kissed me and touched me. But I didn’t utter a word. I couldn’t bear to look at him for longer than that brief instant of recognition. The memories formed into thoughts and I finally formed them into awareness. You could have killed me.
MELINDA COMBS lives in Huntington Beach, California, where she writes, surfs, and adopts senior dogs. Her nonfiction essays have appeared in anthologies entitled Cat Women, Woman’s Best Friend and Far From Home: Father-Daughter Travel Adventures, all published by Seal Press. Her fiction has appeared in Fiction Southeast, Gargoyle, and A Capello Zoo. “Gun Play” is an excerpt from her memoir-in-progress.