Joyland

a hub for short fiction

How We Arrive

Steinur Bell's story How We Arrive won second place in the Summer Literary Seminars 2012 Unified Literary Contest, judged by Mary Gaitskill and sponsored in part by Joyland.

One Monday I stood in my kitchen thawing orange juice concentrate, wondering whether to fix a sandwich. It was noon, quiet, and then I heard the kids laughing. In my bedroom, I parted the blinds and watched three teens walk past my house. They should’ve been at school but instead crossed the street and stopped at the edge of the woods. As the first one headed in, another looked around—looked right at my house. He must not have seen me, must have thought they were safe, because he followed after them and disappeared.

I walked outside. Soon I realized that I was just staring at the opening with no other purpose for standing in my front yard. Across the street, the Pollards’ blinds were open, and the flag was up on their mailbox. I looked back at the opening, barely perceptible if you didn’t know it was there. But after you knew, after you’d seen countless kids slip into the woods, it was like a flashing sign. Enter.

Between the opening and me was the low wooden fence that circled my yard. There was the road, and the ditch. Mrs. Pollard stood at her kitchen window, watching me. I waved, smiled. I noticed how earnestly I smiled, as if I truly enjoyed my neighbors. Her head tilted a little as she nodded, as if she understood what had led me outside. For two years, I’d watched these kids sneak into the woods, where they must have thought they could escape.

*  *  *

I worked from home, as a Web analyst. For a Seattle-based company I created reports detailing how people used our clients’ websites. Where did the visitors enter? How did they arrive? What did they do then and for how long? These questions occupied my days, often my evenings. I pinpointed how many seconds viewers remained on a page. I catalogued search terms they’d used, highlighted trends and made predictions. Most days, when I was done, I ran five miles to try to settle down, but it wouldn’t help. I’d shower, get back online, working and clicking around. I knew better than to look at porn, and often I googled random topics (bocce, best fruit salads) or clicked links I had no interest in (Ready to lose ten pounds?) to throw off the data collectors—to obscure their picture of me. Even then, most days I was online at least 12 hours, clicking and clicking. Every click was monitored by someone. Every click created a stronger impression of who I was.

I was featured once in our local newspaper, the Sunday edition, under the Living section. The headline read: “The Rat Race, at His Own Pace.” I was one of a new breed who worked tech jobs from home. I’d left the city and returned to my home town. My return seemed to vindicate our little, mossy place across the Puget Sound. The writer failed to mention that I’d moved to the city when I was fourteen and only returned as an adult with deep reservations. My father had moved back, alone, diagnosed with cancer. I would play the dutiful son. But the writer focused on balance. We wanted balance in our lives. We eschewed traffic and outrageous home prices. Here, we could settle down. “It’ll be a great place to start a family,” I was quoted. It’s there in the article, archived online. She quoted me verbatim. In the picture they ran, I sit at my desk, with my laptop, smiling, looking like a fit thirty-something, a normal guy ready to start a family. Last time I checked, the story was on page two when I searched my full name. How could I not mention starting a family? Her entire interview worked toward me saying that.   

I knew that my girlfriend, Lynn, had read the article. I knew she was waiting for me to ask her to move in. She rented an apartment. She was 32 and wanted a dog, kids.

I owned two handguns, and for a year, twice a week, I’d driven to the range and spent an hour firing. At home, I’d hold my arm out, watching the gun shake, almost imperceptibly. “Steady, steady,” I’d whisper, and watch, disgusted, at how badly it could shake.

At the range, I met a guy named Don. He wore the hunting vest, camouflage hat, and CAT boots, and he must have stood six five and weighed over 300 pounds. His right hand was seriously scarred. He was the real thing.

We ran into each other often, and he’d stare as if trying to remember how I’d crossed him, but then one day he nodded and I nodded back. We began the small talk. How’s it going, man? Fine. You? Not a bad Browning. One day after we’d begun to talk, we pulled into the lot at the same time and parked next to each other—his Ram truck and my Acura. And I guess I looked a little too long at the scar, which ran from his middle knuckle to his wrist. His pinkie finger, also scarred, seemed permanently crooked.

“That,” he said, “seriously fucked up my shot.”

“How’d you do it?”

Don snorted, shook his head like I was an asshole. “Eight years into our marriage,” he said, “and my wife gets into the chat rooms, was obsessed with the computer. She’d be on it when I got home. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and the light would be on in the study. Finally I asked what exactly she did, and she showed me this place where people put up naked pictures and little videos of themselves. They comment on it all and rate it, one to five stars.

“This ain’t Hustler shit I’m talking about. These people are fat, most of them, like me and my wife.” Don looked at me. “Is this shit your thing?”

I shook my head, no. It wasn’t.

“My wife signed in as HoneyPoon7. She clicked around for a while and got to Tuggin10, this big black fucker with a shitty grin. She said, ‘This is where I go.’”

Don held his fist as if it were a softball. “You can’t fight that,” he said. “You’ll never find Tuggin10, and if you do, he’s in Buffalo, with his own wife, kids. I knew Susan’d keep looking, even if I told her to stop. She had no shame.

“Anyway, a few weeks after I learned she was HoneyPoon, I was just sitting in my truck at the Cove. I watched this guy get out of his car, a black Sentra. He was a tall white guy, one of the computer guys. I followed him inside. He had this cocky smile, but you could see he was a nervous piece of shit who’d think it’s funny, posing as a black guy. He was hitting on a girl. I had a beer, watched, then left.” Don rubbed the scar. “Put this right through his driver-side window first try. Broke the shit out of my hand.”

He looked at me again, shook his head. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

I nodded, but no way I’d let him use his story to get me to confess anything I’d ever thought of doing.

“What I’m saying,” Don said, “is you obsess on something long enough, you’ll take care of it.”

A week later, he was firing two stalls down. During the all clear, he looked at me, puzzled, maybe even proud. He walked over and said, “You’re one of the intense ones.”  

*  *  *

Monday evening, I met Lynn at the Cove, the closest we had to a decent brew pub. When I arrived, she sat watching Jeopardy. She whispered an answer, gave a little fist pump.

“How was your day?” she asked.

I kissed her and sat down. “Another Monday.”

“I may have seen my brother, at a stoplight, but he was driving a Saab.”

“Look at this joker.” I nodded at the TV, at the guy on Jeopardy pumping both fists above his head like Rocky.

Lynn frowned, gave me a little fuck-you smirk. “Nice,” she said. “Thanks.” She and her brother were estranged. He’d once stolen her car, and he owed her two thousand dollars. According to Lynn, he lied and used their parents. He accused her of overly managing his life and criticizing him for his choices. Still she wanted to make it work and once convinced him to try counseling with her for a few months, but that failed.

 “Sorry,” I said. But I didn’t like to talk about Lynn’s brother. On the TV, the contestant opened his arms out like he was Jesus, ministering to his people. He flashed an annoying grin. Just don’t look at the TV, I thought. But it was never that easy.

“A Saab?” I asked.

“Probably it wasn’t him.”

“But you wanted it to be.”

“It seems they’ve dumbed down these questions today,” Lynn said, looking up at the TV. “You stop feeling good about getting them right.”

“You should call him.”

“What are you going to eat?”

*  *  *

Lynn didn’t know about the guns. I kept them hidden. I’d purchased them legally, so my name and other information resided in a government database that Google couldn’t crawl. Outwardly, nothing about me exuded handgun enthusiast. No one I knew liked guns. Lynn was borderline vegetarian and wouldn’t watch violent movies. She’d wonder why I’d concealed such a secret. How would I explain that going to the range and firing confidently, knowing I could hit any spot on the target, knowing that I could handle a firearm, meant so much? How do you explain the guilt? When we had sex, I’d think about the guns hidden nearby, and sometimes I’d imagine holding one while we did it, and I’d feel worse. Once I even whispered sorry and then had to try to explain myself.

Wednesday evening, we sat on my living-room sofa, arguing about antivirus software. “It’s one more thing that tracks you,” I said.

“There are all kinds of creeps that’ll steal your credit cards, your passwords.”

“It slows down your system.”

“A small price for not having to start over.”

Instead of getting to the root of this, we returned our attention to the TV. It was just as well. Inevitably, Lynn would move in, but she was being careful not to push it, and I wanted to believe I had some agency. At eleven, I walked her to her car, not because there was any threat, but because Lynn once said it always felt like the first date.

As I watched the taillights recede, I listened for noise in the woods but heard only the rain. I didn’t smoke, so it must’ve looked curious if any neighbors were watching me standing in the evening chill, trying to confirm that they were out there. I knew they went into the woods at night because I’d heard them before, when I couldn’t sleep but had forced myself to stay in bed. Move, I thought. Step on a branch. Laugh, you fuckers.

Inside, I checked my e-mail, but there was only new spam on all three accounts. I checked Facebook. I checked the scores, the headline news. I googled Lynn. I’d googled her five times since we’d started dating, and it was excessive, even if we all stalked people now. I felt guilty. But if I went far enough, clicked on enough pages, maybe I’d find something new. I found her again on page six of the results—assistant manager at Wells Fargo, owner of a Facebook page. She was archived in the local paper, for her high school academic performance. That was it, my Lynn.

I needed to go to sleep, maybe go for a run, but instead I clicked through thirty more pages of results. It was ridiculous to think that if I followed it far enough, if I clicked on enough links, I’d find some little revelation. I image-searched her. On page 28 of the image results, I clicked on a sour-looking Lynn in fatigues who had much shorter hair than my Lynn. The website associated with the image honored Lynn and others from a battalion that had returned from Iraq, many injured. The site was an amateur effort, a terrible design—with a red, white, and blue background that obscured most of the words.

“You just can’t imagine the heat,” sour Lynn was quoted.

“Over there,” a man named Darrin said, “we learned a lot about ourselves.”

I clicked to view my history, to see how I’d arrived. I saw the steps I’d taken, the steps Google would use to assess its algorithm and to feed me advertisements. And I’d found out nothing. I still didn’t shut down my computer. I navigated to Lynn’s Facebook page. It was the same. She had 64 friends—relatives and friends from high school and college. I’d met some of them in person but mostly I only knew them from the absurd crap they posted on their walls. I started to write a message on Lynn’s wall but abandoned it. I started again, wrote: “Beware of those evil viruses.” I added a smiley emoticon. It was ridiculous. I was too wound up and needed to go running, even just take a bath, something, anything else. I pressed Share before I could back out again. Then I looked at my words, posted for all her friends to read, and felt foolish, pathetic.

The next day, as if there was nothing wrong about me writing such an absurd message at 1:30 in the morning, on a weeknight, after spending almost an hour searching for anything new about her, Lynn responded. She wrote: “Haha, good luck with that, Mr. Go-at-it-alone!” Her emoticon winked.

I sent e-mail to my project manager saying an unexpected errand had come up and that I’d be online later. I’d never done this before. I was the model work-from-home employee. I was always online, always available. I had one of the highest bill rates in our division. Twice, I’d won Rock-Star-of-the-Month. I drove to the firing range. At the range, I was stoic, almost grim. I was a guy who would never use an emoticon. I could hit any spot on the target. I would lose all sense of time.

In the parking lot, I saw Don’s truck. There were others, and it seemed strange, so many people there on a weekday, mid-morning. I bought two targets and chose a spot not far from him and waited for the all clear. Don had a new gun, an enormous .44 Magnum, some Dirty Harry shit. As he shot, he spoke to himself.

During the all clear, I set up the target—a man wearing a ski mask, aiming a shotgun at me. Don walked over. “The intruder,” he said. “You’re a stranger.”

“How are things?” I asked.

“We divorced.” Don stared out at the intruder.

“Sorry to hear that.”

“You don’t even know us.”

I shrugged, put in my earplugs.

He nodded toward his stall. “You should fire the new one.”

“A forty-four.”

“You should fire it. It cost me, but I needed something.”

“Fair enough.”

“Nothing’s fair.” He was rubbing his thumb across his pointer finger. “You make websites, right?”

“What’s that?”

“I remember you from the paper. You do the computer work, websites.”

“I analyze data.”

Don looked at me as if I’d built every site his ex-wife ever visited, as if I’d named her HoneyPoon. He shook his head.

The buzzer sounded. Over the intercom, the voice announced that we could resume firing. Don handed me the Magnum. It was pathetic that he’d bought such an obvious gun after divorcing his wife, but I was interested in firing it. I switched off the safety, aimed, and pulled the trigger. I’d anticipated the kick and didn’t look foolish. It felt good. I missed the heart, though, instead hitting the intruder’s shoulder. I fired again right off, because if I paused, Don would think I couldn’t handle the gun. I hit the heart. You fuck, Don. He was out there in the woods running toward me. Fuck you and your porno ex-wife. I squeezed the trigger and fully blew out the heart. I shot him in the neck. I shot him between the eyes and then a little higher, in the forehead. I pulled the trigger and nothing happened. I pulled it again.

“Someone’s pissed,” he said. He smiled but there was no joy.

“It’s nice,” I said. I handed him his gun and inhaled, short of breath, faint. Bursts of light exploded in my periphery.

“Easy there.”

I should’ve gone home right then. I was too wound up and knew I’d be useless. But I couldn’t leave because it would’ve looked strange, some admission that I couldn’t handle playing Dirty Harry.

When I got back online, I still couldn’t focus. I smelled the range on my hands, felt the Magnum’s kick, heard Don telling me to take it easy. I needed to take a shower, at least wash my hands again, but I didn’t. I kept getting up and going into my bedroom to see if I could catch any kids sneaking into the woods, but school hadn’t let out and the street was empty. I was standing at the window when Mrs. Pollard stepped out of her house to check the mail and I stepped away. My bed was unmade so I made it. I swept. I returned to my computer and joked with a friend on IM to feel that I was okay but it didn’t help. Later, on her break, Lynn tried to chat but I told her I had to call into a meeting and set my IM status to “Busy.” I felt bad. It was stupid to punish her for commenting on my message.

At 2:00, I called into a Live Meeting, a kick-off meeting with a new client to discuss how we could optimize their site. For the first time in a few years I felt unprepared, nervous. I’d finished the report a day earlier, had done a great job on it, but as I tried to listen to the preliminary introductions, I couldn’t focus.

Then it was my turn. “There’s no clear path,” I said into my headset. I got confused because my voice sounded different, condescending, as if I didn’t care. Usually I was overly friendly with our clients. I used a soft voice and was always self-deprecating. When I sent them e-mail, I sometimes used exclamation points. Thanks! Here’s your report! Have a great weekend! They always wrote to my superiors to say how it was a pleasure working with me, how much they appreciated the little things I did. A true class act. They would always write how I rocked. He rocks!

No one had ever prompted me to be so friendly, or to work such long hours, often into the night. None of it was required. But I couldn’t think about that. I had to say something. I had to explain the absence of a clear path to the page detailing their special offers. The absence of consistent entry and exit points. How most people didn’t stay on the home page for even three seconds because the search terms they’d used only corresponded superficially to the actual contents. Everyone on the phone waited and I felt short of breath. The job meant so much to me and I was letting them down. I had to pull it together. I cupped the headset microphone and took a deep breath. I stared at the spreadsheet on my monitor, minimized so I could see the client’s site.

“You had some excellent ideas about search terms and metadata,” my project manager lied. We’d not spoken about the site. She trusted I would be ready.

“Yes,” I said. I swallowed, almost vomited. “I think with this site, the biggest question is how we arrive.”

After the call ended, my project manager sent me a message over e-mail: “Careful w/ the multitasking. Love the spirit, tho—.” The emoticon smiled.

I didn’t fall asleep that night until after 2:00 a.m. I’d run seven miles, watched TV, and then got back online and worked. I had to atone for how badly I’d slipped.

The next evening, at Lynn’s apartment, we watched a bad comedy on cable.

“You’re sidetracked,” she said during a commercial.

“Would you want to move in?” I asked.

We were on her couch, cuddling. She tried to discern if I was serious and I guess realized I was. She sipped from her beer, set it back down on the end table, and looked at the bottle. “I think,” she said.

“Think?”

“It’s really serious if I move in.”

“It’d be best.” I’d managed my best voice and couldn’t hear any hesitation. “Either way, here’s this. It’s overdue.” I dug a spare house key from my pocket.

Lynn asked me to stay over. “This is crazy,” she said. I didn’t want to (I had an enormous project to start early the next morning, and I wanted to get online) but knew it would be best if I stayed. I hardly slept and Lynn kept turning over and a few times, I could tell she faked steady breathing. At three, she asked if I was awake and asked why I wanted her to move in. I told her I loved her. I said, “It’s the right time. I feel good.”

Lynn’s lease didn’t run out for two months and it didn’t make sense to break it. She would move in slowly. “You can ease into your lost freedom,” she joked. She brought over a few boxes, which I stacked in the empty spare bedroom. I returned one evening after a run and found her in the kitchen. She wanted to test it out, she said, to make sure the key worked, to see what it felt like to return home to my house. She winked.

“And?” I asked.

“I like it.”

Three days after I asked her to move in, I worked 14 hours. I asked for and was given more work, more responsibility. I ran. Lynn said I was going to kill myself, that when she fully moved in this would have to stop. You need balance. My boss sent me a message that compiled all the kind words clients had said about me over the past month. A few days later, in the mail, a Starbucks gift card for 25 dollars arrived. I went to my bedroom window but saw no one sneaking into the woods. A month had passed since I’d seen any kids. I walked into the guest room. Lynn had bought brand new boxes from U-Haul. She’d taped them shut, as if she knew I might be tempted to see what they held. I didn’t dare open any, but every few hours I’d find myself in the spare room, running my fingers along the seams, trying to convince myself I’d be okay.

Then it was Tuesday, the first day of spring. After work Lynn and I planned to meet at the Boat House to celebrate. It was Lynn’s idea. But the kids must have known it was the first day of spring, too, because I heard them at 3:45. Two teens rode tricked-out BMX bikes, did wheelies. They laughed. They wore their baseball caps backward. They dismounted and jumped over the ditch. Both glanced around and the taller one, I swore, saw me and seemed to laugh.  

Mrs. Pollard wasn’t watching. Earlier, I’d heard her leave, had heard their garage door clatter open, and she drove off as she did most Tuesday afternoons. I looked back at the opening. I took a deep breath, exhaled. I walked back into my office but knew there was no way I could focus and I returned to the bedroom window. I had to call into a client meeting at 4:30 and I couldn’t leave, couldn’t find out where they went.

I’d started sweating. I saw the kid laughing just before he slipped into the woods. In the office I set my IM status to Unavailable and in my bedroom dug the Browning case from my closet. I loaded the gun and slipped it into the pocket of my windbreaker. I understood the stupidity of bringing the gun but I never imagined it any another way—I always ventured into the woods armed. I had no idea what I might encounter. In the mirror, it didn’t look like I had a gun. There stood an ordinary man with a steady girlfriend and a great job going out for a brisk walk.

Outside, I unlatched the gate and kept going. A car passed. The sun broke through some clouds as I trotted across the road and jumped the ditch. I pulled back a branch but turned and looked at my house, at my empty bedroom window.

It was damp in the woods. The path was not muddy but moist, and I followed the fresh tire tracks for a few minutes before I stopped. I heard birds, the breeze. If I was going to catch them, I needed a bike, but I only had a ten-speed with road tires. I started jogging. After ten or fifteen minutes, the path ended and the tire tracks disappeared into undergrowth. I unzipped my jacket. I’d started sweating. I must have missed a turn, a barely perceptible entrance that would fork and then fork again. But they’d gone this way, as if they’d known I would follow and they wanted to throw me off. It was just as well. I needed to rush back to my house and prepare for the call. But they had to be nearby, watching me standing at the edge of the path, confounded. I’d made it this far. I’d entered. I walked into the undergrowth and followed the trajectory of the path.

The shrubs scratched my ankles, snagged my pants, and twice I nearly tripped. I climbed down a ravine. At the bottom, a rivulet trickled and I saw a frog. Something glittered. Sunlight lit the neck of a beer bottle. There were other bottles, caked with dirt, their labels bleached. I saw cigarette butts. If I turned back now and ran full out, I could make it in time. At least I could call in late. But I climbed up the other side, slipped near the top, grabbed a branch and steadied myself. I turned and looked into the ravine but didn’t see anyone. I waited. I needed a sign, the breeze to bring me a whiff of cigarette or marijuana smoke, laughter bouncing off the trees.

The bottle glimmered. I took out the Browning and aimed at the bottleneck, but I didn’t fire because it was illegal to discharge a firearm in state land. My hands shook and I started to breathe deeply—steady, steady, steady—and this helped. I could hit the neck. It felt good to hold the gun, to have something in my sight, far from the range stalls. And so I must have slipped off the safety. Maybe they were right. Maybe here you could do anything.

The gun fired and the bottle exploded. The kick and the crack shocked me but for a moment I held my pose, as if at the range, as around me the sound echoed. Move, I thought. Go. I started to trot because if the kids were nearby, they’d call the police or just ride like hell out of the woods and alert their parents. I ran deeper into the woods. I tromped through the undergrowth until finally I reached a worn path. I turned left and then left again when the path forked. I grew certain the cops would be waiting at all the main exits, and they’d arrest me for discharging a firearm. My name would appear in the local paper’s police blotter. Maybe the kids had been so close they’d seen me shoot. They’d concoct a story about how I’d aimed at them, how I’d made them kneel on the ground and pray, and how I’d shot over their heads as they knelt. It’d take months, a year, to clear my name, and even then, you never truly clear yourself. The story would linger online. I’d lose my job, and Lynn, likely even the house.

I almost missed the bikes, propped against a tree off the path. But the chrome glinted and I stopped, realized that I still held the gun, which I stuffed into my jacket pocket. I couldn’t see the kids and wasn’t sure the bikes were the same ones I’d seen earlier, but that didn’t matter. I’d found them. I heard something above me and saw, twenty feet up, a tree fort.

One of them said, “Shit.”

The fort looked well built, big enough to probably hold four people. I couldn’t see the kids, but of course they had a phone and could’ve taken my picture and sent it to someone. They could’ve been updating their status on Facebook. Dude with a gun about to kill us. Send help! He’s got on a windbreaker.   

“Hey,” I said.

“We called the cops.” 

“You have no idea,” I said.

“Fuck you, man,” a different voice said. “Bitch.”

“You probably don’t even have a phone.”

“Everyone’s got a phone, dickhead. They know you got a gun.”

“Who built this?”

“Go jerk off somewhere else, mother fucker.”

They didn’t laugh. I needed to leave. I looked at the tree fort and at their bikes, dirt bikes, kid bikes. “You thought you could escape,” I said. “But you’re not safe anywhere.”

To this, they said nothing. I wasn’t sure what to do then. Just leave? I’d made my point. I’d found them. The police had to be on their way, and I needed to figure a new way out of the woods. I stood, faint, sweating, my heart going too fast.

One of the kids spoke again: “They’re coming. To help.”

Which I guess was enough because I turned and ran without looking back. I jogged for half an hour, maybe longer, before I heard cars. Dusk had set in and soon I saw headlights and lit buildings and houses. I remembered we’d set a date, that Lynn and I should’ve been sipping drinks.

The exit appeared. I approached slowly but couldn’t see any police, so I emerged—behind the Safeway, where a teenager wearing a black apron sat on some pallets, smoking. He watched as I walked out of the woods. The kid flicked his cigarette and went back inside. I hurried around the Safeway and found myself amongst people again, shoppers, a dad pushing his son in a race-car-shaped shopping cart—the kid howling with joy. I nodded and smiled. He loves it, I tried to convey, but the man wouldn’t acknowledge me. I hurried on, noticed the dirt stains on my jeans, my shoes, my hands. I stared down at the sidewalk, walking fast, as the headlights washed over me, certain a police car would approach, slow to a crawl.

* * *

Lynn had parked in the driveway, boxing in my car. The police hadn’t yet arrived or if they had Lynn must have covered my absence, but that idea was preposterous—if anything, she’d have called the police. He’s always available. He’s always in touch.

The Pollards’ house was lit as usual. But I knew the police would arrive soon. By now they had to know. I stopped a house down as something moved in my living-room window and Lynn peeked out. She must have thought I’d gone running. What else could she think? I had on my running shoes. But I was wearing jeans. I tried to remember if I’d left the other gun out on the bed but I could recall almost nothing of the moments leading up to my departure.

In the dark I couldn’t see the opening in the woods until a car passed. Then it was gone. I’d entered, though, and I’d found them—they knew they couldn’t escape, they’d always understand that. A jangling dog collar startled me and I turned, terrified to see one of the couples on my block walking their dog, watching me standing inexplicably in the street. The dog was alone, running straight at me. It was a puppy retriever that lived four doors down. It must have escaped. I reached out my hand—I was a good person, the dog sensed that—and it juked and hopped. Its tail wagged. It darted at me and jumped away. It barked, darted, barked again.

The front door of my house swung open and the screen door screeched and the dog turned and fled. Lynn stood in the porch light like my mom calling me in for the night, and for an instant I was a nine, free, and I felt more disoriented. Then I understood that I’d lost my chance to ditch the gun. I stuffed my hands in my pockets instead and started walking toward the woman on the porch, who was my Lynn.

“You have to forgive me,” I said. But I didn’t look at her face because a car turned onto my street and I swore it was a police cruiser. It was a Bronco.

“Jesus,” Lynn said, I think because I’d startled so badly and still watched the taillights until the Bronco turned. “We had a date.” I could see that at some point she’d cried. “I waited like an hour. I texted a hundred times and kept calling.”

“Do you want to come inside?” I didn’t want to go inside because too many messages on my voice mail and in my inbox waited, but if the police crept past, they would see me. I didn’t want Lynn to witness my arrest, but I knew it’d be better if she waited inside with me.

She’d been watching the HGTV channel and people appeared to have transformed a backyard. “These geraniums look great!” a voice cried. A woman high-fived a man.

Lynn stood in the doorway. “You weren’t even running,” she said. She held the door handle but wouldn’t close the door. She looked at my jeans and at my face, as if I was her brother and had just slapped her. I felt the Browning and stifled an urge to show her. I needed to tell her everything. If I could explain everything she might stay. I started to say, “Listen,” but all that came out was “Lynn.” I had no idea where to begin and even wondered if it’d be enough to just hold her, to hug her tightly. That was absurd. I could feel the gun, the sweat on my T-shirt going cold. I said, “They thought they were free.”  

Her lips trembled. We looked at each other for at least a minute until someone on the TV said, “Fantastic!” I must have smiled or something—my face seemed to twist—and she went into the kitchen and came back clutching her purse to her breast and she was gone, but how strange that she closed the door so quietly and locked it after she left. I heard her car and the headlights filled the living-room. This light remained longer than it should have and then was gone and the sound of her car was gone.

I switched off the living-room light. I switched off the bathroom light and the kitchen light. I found the remote and switched off the TV. The cable box glowed brighter orange from its digital clock, the colon pulsing, marking each passing second. In my office the power strips glowed red, the green lights of my router flickered, and the edges around my screensaver pulsed. I couldn’t imagine waking my laptop or checking my voicemail. My cell phone chirped every few minutes, alerting me there were too many messages. I glanced into the spare room, the outline of Lynn’s boxes. In the bedroom, I hid the Browning in its case though of course a quick search would uncover it. They’d find them both. I opened the blinds just enough. Because the police would come. They had to. In the kitchen I found a chair and brought it to the window, where I sat and waited, watching to see them arrive.