Son of a Gun
"Isn't it beautiful?" my husband said.
He held the pistol, finger on the trigger, turning it back and forth as if there were some secret corner of the thing he had not already found and admired.
"And deadly," I said.
"The best combination."
He offered it to me but I shook my head.
It was the first firearm in our married household, but he held it like he'd always known how. We hadn't talked about getting one until recently, and even then, we didn't talk, exactly. He'd been watching the news and there'd been a rash of public shootings—a church, a theater, a nightclub—and he'd stood up from the couch and declared, "That's it, I'm getting a gun."
"You think that's a good idea?" I'd asked.
And after a pregnant pause of background checks and concealed carry courses, here it was in our house. In the steel.
"Put that thing away before dinner," I said.
"Why, you afraid I'll shoot you if it isn't cooked right?"
"That's not funny."
He laughed anyway.
The safe was in the hallway closet, clunky gray with a spin combination lock, and it had never held anything other than my grandmother's diamond earrings before the gun went to live there. Even locked away, I felt its presence in the house. I stared at the closet door in the bathroom mirror while I brushed my teeth too hard, spitting out blood.
The sound of a crying baby woke me. A few months before, my mother had called to warn me about a serial killer who used recorded baby cries to lure women outside in the middle of the night. This is it, I thought. He's come for me now, but I know the game. I rolled over and pulled the covers over my head.
I couldn't go back to sleep, though. Each cry was as startling as a gunshot. I woke my husband.
"What the hell's that noise?" he said.
"You should get the gun," I said.
He turned on the hallway light. I buried my shaking hands in the bed sheets. He opened the closet door and spun the combination. The cries got louder. They sounded so real they threatened to trigger my latent maternal instincts, but I repeated to myself, it's just a creep with a recording, just a creep...
The cries were so loud now they sounded like they came from inside the house. My husband stared into the safe, crouched on the balls of his feet, knees out in sharp points against his pajama pants.
"Um," he said finally, still staring into the safe. "You need to come look at this."
I got out of bed.
He pointed. I leaned over and looked into the safe.
A baby, maybe five pounds, lay on the floor of the safe, kicking skinny arms and legs. The gun rested beside it, the barrel pointing at a naked hip.
He stopped crying when I wrapped him in the blanket from our bed. It was a he, no doubt, and he had gunmetal gray eyes and a dark patch of hair.
We went back to bed, both hoping the whole thing was a dream. The baby slept between us.
In the morning my husband locked the safe he'd left open through the night. I tried to feed the baby some 2% milk from a turkey baster. He squirmed. Milk dribbled down his cheek and stained my pant leg.
"We should try to find where it belongs," my husband said.
"We can't just go hang up Lost and Found signs. He's not a dog that wandered into our yard."
"Well, we should call the police, at least."
"They'll want to know how we got him."
He glanced at the closet and that was the end of it. He left for work. I called in sick.
The baby stared up from my lap. I bounced my knee a few times, trying to get him to smile, but he just kept his gray eyes on my face, so steady he almost seemed like a doll. Then he burst out in that earsplitting cry again.
He wasn't like other kids. He couldn't be, having been born of a gun cabinet rather than a womb. We told our family we adopted, it wanted it to be a big surprise. Schools wouldn't take him with no birth certificate, so we homeschooled him. He became a strange-looking boy. His neck was too long, and as he grew his skin developed an odd shine. His eyes seemed to bore straight through anything he looked at. I was always telling him not to stare.
He stayed smaller than other children, and didn't get along with them well. Babysitters and other parents who looked after him when my husband and I went out described him as having an explosive temper. I felt guilty for his behavior, sure that I had never effectively taken on the mother role. I had tried to raise him like a son, but he scared me.
When he was six, my husband took him to the shooting range. He hadn't pulled the gun out of the safe but once or twice, and only then to clean it, to prove it still existed.
I'd never seen the boy so excited as when the two of them came home from the range. He wasn't normally a talkative child, but he went on and on, recounting every second they'd spent at the range, the way I'd heard neighborhood kids talk about their new bike or their trip to Disneyland.
"Can we go again, can we? Can we go again?"
They went again. Weekly, in fact. Once, they managed to drag me along. I sat behind them wearing cushioned earphones, flinching at every shot. The boy's earphones were too big and nearly slipped off his head. My husband adjusted the boy's grip and corrected his stance as if he were an expert.
"You should try!"
The boy jumped into my lap and his skin felt hot to the touch. I shook my head. As long as we'd had the gun, I'd still managed never to touch the thing.
The news said it was the worst public shooting in our state. At the same mall where I always took the boy to buy new shoes. Someone I used to work with was killed in the food court, and it was at her funeral that my husband mentioned getting a second gun.
"A small one," he whispered. "You can keep it in your purse."
I kept my eyes focused on the blood red flowers on top of my co-worker's casket. I tried to picture myself in the mall food court, a gunman firing rounds at the gyro shop. That I could picture fine. Too easily, in fact, almost as if I had been there with my co-worker. I tried to picture myself taking cover behind a knocked-over chair, pulling a gun from my purse and saving the day with a skilled shot. That I couldn't see so well. The version I saw was me fumbling with my purse, the clatter of the gun on the mall floor attracting the attention of the gunman, the barrel of his gun pointed at my head.
In the car later, he compromised.
"Just learn how to shoot the one we've got, at least."
I saw the boy's gray eyes staring at me through the rearview mirror. It had been over six years since we'd found him in the gun cabinet, and the only time he'd felt remotely like my son was that moment when he jumped into my lap at the gun range. The only time he seemed excited was around that damn weapon. Maybe it was my only chance to connect with him.
"Fine," I said.
I was a terrible shot. My hands were never as steady as the boy's. My husband gave up trying to fix my stance. I could tell my shoulders would be sore afterward. But I kept trying, round after round.
They say guns don't kill people. It's the flesh that wraps around the trigger, the muscle that twitches to pull it, the synapses that fire in the brain to make the deadly decision. But without this tool in my hand, my synapses and muscles and flesh could never have the power to take a life. This was the first time, standing in front of that man-shaped paper target, that I ever felt I had the capability. That my neurons might recognize a human being and send the message to pull a trigger. That my muscles might have the strength to respond. That my flesh might goosepimple at the thrill of the tear of someone else's flesh.
When I was done I handed the pistol to the boy. As soon as he touched it, his skin turned slick and wet. The whole room sweltered with a sudden heat and the barrel of the gun wilted in his hand. The boy's limbs melted; the form of his body collapsed. His gray eyes were the last to go, swimming in the molten metal, still staring, boring through me as they'd always done. Then the eyes disappeared and the blob reformed with a snap.
On the floor of the gun range, an assault rifle stared back at me. I looked at my husband.
"Should we tell somebody?" I asked.
"They'll want to know where we got it," he said.
I looked back at the rifle, half expecting it to transform back into the boy. My husband threw my coat at me.
"Put this over it," he said.
And I carried the new gun out of the range, cradling it inside the coat like a baby.
The rifle was too big to fit in the gun cabinet, so we left it in the closet. In a few days, it was gone, along with the glass in our bedroom window and most of our electronics. We reported the burglary, but didn't mention the gun. We told our family his real parents had come to take him back. It was true, in a way.
The house felt different without the boy or the gun. More vulnerable. Or safer, maybe. I couldn't decide which.
I saw the boy, once more. Another shooting happened, at a local restaurant. This shooter had escaped, and survivors gave conflicting and confusing reports about his appearance. Their reports even differed on the type of gun he used. I sat on the edge of the couch, the remote clutched so tightly my hands were white-knuckled.
"I'm never leaving the house again," I told my husband.
"Oh sure, you say that," he answered from the kitchen.
"It's too damn..." I said, but the word dangerous caught in my throat. I struggled to breathe.
"Let's turn it off," he said, and took the remote from me.
"No, wait!" I said, but the screen had already gone black. "I thought I saw..."
I grabbed the remote from him and turned it back on, but the news had switched to a different topic. My husband shut it off again. But I swear, just before he snapped it off that first time, I saw a familiar little boy standing in the crowd outside the restaurant, staring through the screen at me with gunmetal gray eyes.
is nearing the end of her MFA at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Birkensnake, The First Line