A Dark Tale by Aaron Hull
He was at his desk with his headphones on, watching something loud and hard, so he didn’t hear her come up the stairs. Didn’t hear the click of the safety disengage. Didn’t hear the wrap of knuckles on wood, or turn to see the shadow under the door. So when the blast filled the room and the door behind him shattered, he believed—for an instant—that there’d been an explosion outside, out on the street, and he looked up from the screen, down through the window, expecting to see smoke.
Instead he smelled it. Gunpowder.
He looked left, and he saw the hole high in the wall, the plaster crumbling down to the floor. Turned right, saw the splintered maw chest-height through the door, the hallway light bleeding through. A haze of smoke riding ceiling-ward, as though a dragon sat the other side.
She had one shot left, he knew, and he knew she would use it. The first had just been a warning. She would make herself heard, she’d said. If he chose not to listen she would find a way to make him listen. She was reasonable, the things she had to say were reasonable things to say to a person, but if he refused reason then she would find a language he understood.
He dropped to the floor, pressed his belly to it, tried to make himself flatter than he was. Listened for movement past the door as he executed several log rolls across the carpet, like a man on fire. He thought he had told her about the piece he kept stowed in a drawer in the study. If she remembered it she would be expecting him to use it, and she was perhaps waiting to see if he would make for it and return fire.
He was, and he would. Though it was possible she had not remembered, for he had mentioned it only in passing when she’d allowed that the shotgun was a terribly big gun, perhaps more than a woman her size could handle, and he’d said he kept something smaller upstairs but that she should not be frightened by its size but grow to love it. Which is when she’d smiled and pressed the barrel into his belly and cocked an eyebrow and through pouted lips said, Boom. Which had made her irresistible, so that for a moment he forgot about the others, taking the gun from her hands and her into his own and felt himself stiffen to her body.
Why he kept it in the top drawer rather than the bottom he couldn’t say now, and he cursed himself for it as he lay hunkered against the floor beside the dresser. Whatever scenario had played out in his head when he’d done so, it had not been this.
She had made no sound yet and he pictured her on the other side of the door, thinking perhaps she had hit him, but choosing cat-like to wait and listen in case he was still viable.
He had not shown her where he kept the box of shells behind a false panel under the gun and she was being conservative now and cautious. She was reasonable and rational and she was finally making herself heard. Meanwhile he needed to make himself silent as he reached for the drawer and eased it open and thanked himself for buying a new dresser with smooth, well-oiled runners.
The important thing was to not tip your hand. But people wanted to know things, and you wanted to believe it good for them to know, so you allowed yourself to tell them. Just as you shared other things with them—investment tips, thoughts on politics, all the shit you’d done in your past of which you were no longer proud. Stories of the many lovers you had had in the years before you met. When asked, what you really thought of the girl passing on the street. The pass code to your lockbox and the combination to the cabinet where, months ago—because she expressed interest, and because you thought it was good that she know how to defend herself in the event you were not around—you showed her where you kept the twelve-gauge. Which you removed and demonstrated how to load and how the safety worked and to hold it like this, with your feet planted so, not like that—the kickback would bruise your shoulder and knock you to the ground. Things that then seemed like good, sensible, useful things to share with her, but which in retrospect may not have been.
As in cards, so in life. Wise to always keep something under the table in the event that things did not go as planned and turned against you.
Don’t ever turn your back on a man with a gun, his father had told him.
They’d stood around the table in the Number 10 Saloon where Wild Bill Hickok had sat playing poker when someone put a bullet in him. Wild Bill’s chair sat in a recessed cubby hole over the bar, like a shrine, and his hand of cards—the Dead Man’s Hand—lay fanned on the table. He’d stood looking at the cards. His father had said to always keep your back to the wall in the event of things unforeseen, and then they’d grabbed stools at the bar and put their backs to the door and drank sarsaparillas. When he’d asked what about what you just said, his father nodded at their inverse selves in the mirror and said, What do you think that’s for?
So if you couldn’t see straight-ahead, second best was being able to see behind you without turning. Yet hindsight, like mirrors, distorted things, and it was best to be ready to face them head-on.
Some version of which he’d repeated for her as she’d fumbled a shell into each chamber and locked the barrel and clicked the safety off, then on, and repeated this, practicing her stance, seeming to pleasure in the gun’s surprising heft, the cold blue of the barrels, the firm handshake of the stock.
He dipped his hand into the drawer and felt around for his father’s old single-action. He kept it wrapped in a hand towel under a slim stack of worn magazines he kept facedown though he’d torn the covers from them. Some things you could not see coming. The revolver lay just to the right of where his hand anticipated it, and as he lifted it from the drawer and unwrapped it, and his fingers touched cold steel, he thought he could sense her breathing through the wall. Her ear pressed to it, listening. His own breathing he knew must fill the room, though he could not hear it past his heart and the wash of blood past his eardrums.
He tried to still himself the better to hear, lowered himself again onto his gut, felt the floor punch him in the chest. Except it was his heart throwing itself against the floor, trying to break out. A remarkable muscle, like a coiled bicep excised and installed just under of his throat. Soon it would switch course and turn south and search out another route.
A floorboard the other side of the wall groaned and he pressed the gun’s stock to the place between his eyes, felt it there like an icepack. He shaped his mouth into an O, emptied his lungs. He had six rounds to her one—good odds by any measure. But in her state what would take her one might take him three, four—perhaps a full six to bring her down.
Then there was the berth. He looked at the ruined door, the splintered wood like a hand thrust through it pointing out the slug buried in the wall. A person could survive multiple gunshots, they could dig the slugs from your flesh and tie off your frayed arteries and patch you up. You could go on with a normal life. You heard of such things. You never heard of walking off a shotgun blast. A severed spine if you were lucky. You might wheel away from it. Take your food through a straw.
Still, the odds might favor him. Even if he had to squeeze off three, that didn’t bode well for her, and she knew it. That’s why she was waiting. Well, let her wait. She would come down from wherever she was soon enough, and then he might reason with her on his terms.
He looked at the chair. Imagined its back caved in, shards of it embedded in him. Saw the Dead Man’s chair in its little cave in the wall. Here was not a case where a mirror could help you much nor even to face the door. Here was something you couldn’t see coming no matter where you put yourself. That was not a thing his father had ever talked about, possibly hadn’t considered. This was a new thing.
Not that he’d spent much time on it himself, but at least he’d been wise enough not to show her the extra shells. Never tip your hand.
Was there an answer here that didn’t involve him shooting his way out of it? They’d talked plenty and what more was there to say? It would just be her yelling as always, him trying to defend himself with what little he had. All of which she’d anticipate before it was out and which she’d already have disarmed. She was too smart for anyone’s good, least of all her own. She’d done one year at the Academy, had a detective’s mind, a way of rooting things out and knowing your next move. She was a natural gambler and if she were not so disgusted by his own habits she’d make a brilliant card player.
No, a shootout was what she wanted, what she’d been after for some time, hounding and threatening and trying to bait him. It was what she’d come up for, why she’d aimed high, why his head was still on his shoulders while the bullet had almost pierced the ceiling.
Well, fine, a shootout is what she would get.
He drew his thumb down over the hammer. Its sound in that still moment was like a deck of cards poorly shuffled. Something off. You played long enough, you knew what it should sound like. Knew when something was missing.
He heard her now, at last. Heard her feet come quick down the hall. Saw her pale fist slide through the ragged hole in the door. Watched the shells spill from it in quick succession, counted them out—one, two, three, four, five, six. Heard them ring off the floor like an alarm. Watched them bounce and roll and hum in slow revolutions.
He lowered the hammer and drew his thumb back and flipped out the cylinder. Stared down at the floor spinning through the chambers. Like peering through a kaleidoscope.
He looked up. Saw the fist gone. Heard her footsteps—hard and fast over the floor—coming for him. He’d given her all the ammunition she needed.
Aaron Hull writes and lives west of the Mississippi.