When the gun lobby made its next call for victims, I volunteered. It was a sure-fire way – excuse the pun – of assuring my future.
In the bar that night Vic said I was crazy.
“What you want to go and do that for, Marvin? I mean, for chrissake!”
“I’ll be set up for life, near as dammit. I mean, what’ve I got now? No job, no prospects, a life in the food lines. Now if I survive–”
“If,” he said.
“Look at the statistics. Sixty per cent of all volunteers survive the massacre.”
“Look at the statistics. Forty per cent of all volunteers end up in body bags.”
“So? What if I am unlucky? It’ll be over so fast I won’t know a thing. Better a quick death than what I’ve got now.”
He cocked an eye at me. “You sure about that?”
“Sure I’m sure.”
“This ain’t no way to solve the problem, Marvin. Hell, the lunatics are running the asylum.”
“So what would you do, if you were me?”
He shrugged. “Get out. Leave the country. I hear the beer’s cheap in Mexico.”
“That’s the problem,” I said. “I can’t afford to get out.”
* * *
I was welcomed to the reservation by a woman with a smile like an air hostess and a dead look in her eyes. I suppose she had to protect herself. After all, as Vic pointed out, forty per cent of everyone she met in this place ended up being carried out feet first.
“And this is your apartment. You’ll note that it has all the latest amenities for your comfort and enjoyment.”
It sure as hell was palatial compared to the hundred dollar a week rat hole I was renting.
“All we ask is that you spend a minimum of ten hours a day in the venue of your choice.”
And with another fake smile she was gone.
I looked around the room and wondered if its last inhabitant had walked away from the reservation. I made myself a ham on rye and settled down for the night with a bottle of Bud and watched the ballgame.
The fun began at eight in the morning.
* * *
I chose the playground of the mock-up school. After all, schools were a popular venue in the bad old days before the gun lobby got its act together and actually did something to improve the situation.
I sat on a swing and looked at the people milling around the pre-fab buildings. About a hundred of us, like prisoners in an exercise yard. I stared at a big guy in a greatcoat shuffling around the basketball court.
For all I knew he might be the one, concealing a Heckler and Koch beneath the coat.
A thin white girl walked over and sat on the swing next to mine.
“Hi,” she said.
I stared at her. “You’re young,” I said.
She gave me a white-trash stare. “And you’re black, mister.”
Good start. “I mean, why you here?”
She kicked off and swung. “Same reason as you, mister. I wanna make it.”
“Where you from?”
“Hey, we’re neighbours. Almost. Queens.”
She gazed across the playground. She was twitchy, and I didn’t think it was just from nerves. She was thin, hollow-faced.
She wandered away. The day passed slowly.
That night, back at my luxury pad, I kicked back with a six-pack and two burgers.
One down, six to go.
I remembered something Vic had said just before I said goodbye.
* * *
“And if you survive?”
“What about it?”
“What you gonna do with your fifty grand?”
“I do. You gonna buy yourself an automatic,join the lobby and line up to take a pop, huh, Marvin?”
“Join the lobby? You know how much that costs? Anyhow, they don’t accept people like you and me. And I’m insulted you’d think that, Vic.”
* * *
I was getting antsy. Any one of those bastards in the school ground might be the one. Except the white kid, of course. She couldn’t be carrying. She wore jeans and a tee-shirt that fit her anorexic frame like a skin-graft.
Unless she was packing a dainty Kel-Tec down by her snatch, of course.
But nah, the kid wasn’t the type. Unless she was a good actress.
“Hi,” she said again.
“Hi there. I’m Marvin.”
I looked around at the volunteers. “So… who do you think it is?”
She shrugged. “Might be any one of ’em. Might be someone come in from outside. There’s no rules, Marvin. Or, the only rules are some of us are gonna end up stiff.”
I was pedantic. “That’s not a rule, Winona. That’s a fact.”
She shrugged. “So what you gonna do with the cash if you make it, Marvin?”
“Get the hell out of here. You?”
“Me? Buy me a place in rehab.”
The siren sounded. End of day two. I high-tailed it back to my apartment and downed six.
* * *
Around midnight, a knock at the door.
My heart kicked.
I told myself that the apartment was out of bounds, put a lid on my panic and answered the door.
Winona. She wouldn’t look me in the eye.
“I’m frightened, Marvin.”
I held her. “Me too.”
* * *
“And after rehab?” I kicked off and swung, back and forth.
“S’posin’ I make it.”
“You’ll make it. So…?”
She shrugged. “Never thought about it. One day at a time. Today, then tomorrow, if there’s a tomorrow.”
“Hey, you gotta dream, y’know?”
She stared at me. “Do you dream, Marvin?”
“I dream all the time,” I said. “I dream of leaving the country, getting away.”
We talked about anything to forget where we were, what might happen at any second.
We avoided the cafeteria. I’d done my research. I’d packed some ham on rye and we shared them on the swings.
I’d scoped the playground. When the firing started, I knew where I’d go. Not that scrabbling under the science lab would provide much cover, but you had to do something.
“Hey,” I said. “Why so trusting?”
She squinted. “What you mean?”
“What if I’m the gunman?”
She laughed. “You?”
“Well, why not?”
She held up skinny fingers. “One, wrong colour. Two, you’re poor – going by those old chinos. Three, you got a nice smile.”
“A nice smile means fuck all,” I said.
The siren went at six, the end of a long day. Winona came back to my place and we fucked like animals.
* * *
Day four. Three to go.
We took to walking. Sitting on the swings, I reckoned we were pretty good targets. Walking, we stood a chance. I told her this and she shrugged.
We avoided the others, which wasn’t hard as they were avoiding us.
Winona gave me her past. Trailer-home kid, pa who liked the sauce, beat up on her mother. The usual story. She escaped at sixteen. Met a guy who dealt, and the rest was history. She was twenty-five, which amazed me. I had her down as eighteen.
We hunkered down outside the science lab.
The afternoon hours seemed the longest. I thought the day would never end. At least it was warm.
“You?” she asked.
“Joined up at twenty. Iraq, then Iran. I saw a mortar blow my best buddy to bits and I kinda lost it. After that I got a job as a janitor downtown. Lasted ten years, then the boss caught me drinking on duty. That was five years ago and I’ve been on the heap ever since.”
“Married. You kidding?”
Six. The siren went. I almost yelled with relief. We ran back to my place and jumped in the sack, then ate.
* * *
Day five. Jesus Christ. Two to go.
We had our first and last bust up.
We were walking around the perimeter. Winona was on the outside.
I realised something. I’m a pretty big guy and she was tiny. I stopped and stared at her. “Hey…”
“I get it.”
She gave me a look. “Get what?”
“Why you… You and me. Us. Why you came onto me.”
“What the fuck, Marvin, you talking about?”
“When the firing starts, yeah? Like… I’m a shield, right? You hide behind fat Marvin and play dead when the bullets hit.”
She stared at me. Yelled, “You fuck! You stupid, stupid, stupid fuck!” And ran off.
The siren wailed. I went back to my place.
I spent the night alone.
* * *
Holy Mother of fucking God. This was it. Stats showed that only four per cent of gunmen chose day seven to spree. Law of averages said today was the day.
I left the apartment and crossed the playground. I’d made two sandwiches.
Winona was on the swing, a sitting duck.
I walked over. “Hey.”
She didn’t look up. “Hey.”
I held out the food. “I made this.”
She didn’t take it.
“Look, I’m sorry.”
She looked up. “Then why the fuck you said what you said?”
I shrugged. “I dunno. Sorry. Nerves. I wasn’t thinking straight, okay?” I stared down at the sandwich in my hand. “Fact is… Look, I haven’t… I mean, for chrissake, look at me. No film star, right? Carrying eighty pounds over. And why a cute kid like you would…”
“You’re one stupid fuck, Marvin.”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry.”
She shook her head. “So you giving me that sandwich, or what?”
I passed her the sandwich, my heart nearly bursting.
She said, “One day to go, Marvin, after this…”
“One day. I can hardly believe it. Longest week of my life.”
She smiled, and the smile lit up her face. “I think we gonna make it, Marvin.”
I was about to say we should meet up after all this, that it’d be good, we could go see a movie or something… and then the firing started.
I was surprised. Surprised? What a jerk. I mean, that’s why we were there, right, to be shot at? And then the gunman opens up and I’m what-the-fuck-is-that?
I looked around the playground and saw all those people, falling. The way those bodies came apart was Iran all over again.
We never had time to make it to the science lab.
He was striding across the playground, spraying his semi-automatic. And the thing I’ll remember, the thing I’ll never forget, was his smile. He looked like a regular guy, having himself a good time.
I turned to Winona, reached out for her hand.
A dozen bullets stitched her torso from crotch to throat and pulverized her skull.
I ran towards the gunman, screaming, but something stopped me before I got to him.
* * *
I recall the medics moving among us, sorting the living from the dead. I recall being loaded into the back of the ambulance.
Then nothing for what seemed like a long time.
I woke up in pain.
A medic was doing something to my leg. I screamed. “You gonna be fine, buddy. Hang on in there.”
Next thing I knew, another medic was standing over me. “You’re one lucky dude, man. Sonofabitch went twenty per cent over his quota.”
I thought of Winona, cried some, then passed out.
* * *
“Hey, how bad…?” I asked.
A nurse said, “Your leg, Marvin. I’m sorry. We had to amputate. And he got you in the belly, too.”
“I s’pose I’m lucky.”
She smiled down at me. “You’re a hero, Marvin.”
“Yeah? How’d you reckon that?”
“You stopped him, Marvin. Hit him like a charging bull. They reckon you saved a lot of lives.”
“And the guy?”
“He was fined a hundred grand and dismissed from the National Rifle Association. Now, if you’ll let me change that dressing…”
* * *
I limped into the bar. Vic was on his usual stool.
He put his beer down. “Christ, Marvin.”
“What you drinking, Vic?”
“This one’s on me. Christ.” He shook his head and passed me a Bud. “How… I mean, how you doing, Marvin?”
“Fine. I’m fine. I mean, I’m okay. I’ll live. Most of the payout went on fixing me up, but what the hell? Still got ten grand.”
Vic said, “So what you gonna do now?”
I stared at my beer and thought about Winona, who’d dreamed of getting into rehab.
“Ten grand,” I said. “Enough to set me up someplace for a while. And I hear the beer’s cheap in Mexico.”
I lifted my beer and drank.
Eric Brown asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work