Thoughts in a Chamber

By Jennifer Young

At any moment, I could grab my wallet and drive down to Wal-Mart. I’d walk into the store, taking a cart so my hands would have something to grab at as my feet propel us down the aisles. I see myself making a turn to the left, walking past the sweaters and the greeting cards and the cheap shampoos and the four aisles of cosmetics until I make a right turn. You can never get lost in a Wal-Mart, they’re all engineered to have the exact same fluorescent format. As I push my cart past the bicycles, there’s a glass display. I leave my cart and hunt the aisles of products for one employee. For all its ease in layout, the employees never seem to be behind the desks that Wal-Mart provides them, their temporary homes. Either way, the acquired employee will take out my product, and let me buy it at Wal-Mart’s Low and Reasonable price. I leave the store, walking down the wrong row to my car and having to backtrack a few times to find it. I would place a newly purchased rifle in my car and drive back home.

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I crack my fingers in class, creating an echo across the concrete walls. I’ve been popping my fingers since I was in fifth grade. My mother absolutely hates it. I do it so often now that my joints are awkwardly swollen and feel stiff if I don’t pop them. My fingers used to be fairly quiet, but now they go off like firecrackers. Every once in a while, the startle I meet in someone’s eyes across the room will remind me why soldiers who came home afraid with nothing to fear stay indoors for the Fourth of July. But there is a comfort in knowing that fireworks don’t echo. Only gunshots do. The comfort is stripped away in remembering why I had to know that distinction.

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Keeping up with the news is like when my parents would make me go to my grandmother’s house as a child. It was boring, went too long, and always gave me an anxiety that I couldn’t quite place; but that I could blame on her fake leather couches that swallowed me whole and mismatched pillows whose textures constantly chafed against me. On the left, I can hear people talking, but I’m not a part of the conversation whatsoever. They talk about things I don’t have the capacity to comprehend. Regardless, I sit and listen to them anyways just to attempt to understand what’s going on. They’re talking about my father’s childhood and how the Mr. G’s down the street has to remodel, and oh, is my cousin ever going to marry that girlfriend of his? I sit there and play with my thumbs and comb through my hair, oil sticking to my fingers as they bring up anniversaries while she moves her squeaky dog to her bedroom and suddenly Anderson Cooper is letting me know that a school in Blacksburg, Virginia was impacted by a school shooting, 33 deaths.

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My generation grew up with video games. My first console was placed in my hands when I was eleven, the buzzing of the Wii remote feeling like victory. I played Mario on the DS, racing by the computer-generated rivals that my thumbs flew past.

But the thing about Mario is that Mario is clean. Mario doesn’t whip out a glock when he needs to rescue Princess Peach. My parents didn’t worry about that, I wasn’t like my cousin who played hours of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. We sat together on my uncle’s couch playing it at Thanksgiving one year. I couldn’t snipe to save my life.

People get really worked up over video games. I know my parents do. My dad is a teacher, and he thinks that his students’ obsession with Fortnite is normalizing gun violence or something. My dad joined the Marines when he was seventeen.

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I remember when I was seven and playing hide and seek outside, running between the peeled walls of lofted mobile homes, temporarily mounted upon the earth on stilts, dry patches of weeds masquerading as grass. I’d run to my dad’s shed, which was dusty in a way that makes you want to sneeze with no release, that chokes you in its smell. I can’t imagine it ever having been new; dark wood chipping and ready to splinter into my bare feet.

The shed itself had a lock that was always open. But you’d never want to hide inside the shed, that was too obvious a move. Not only that, but my dad’s shed was full of items that had no business being as cluttered as they did, drawers full of loose nails, boards of wood cleaner than the ones under my feet. I’d run to the left side of the shed, under the work table and behind the gas tanks. There was a wall next to the shed, creating a sense of being enclosed, of a room under the ceiling of the desert sun. The concrete underneath me would leave my skin rashy the next day. As I sat, back to the gas generator, spiderwebs sticking to the shirt that my mom would have me change into when I wanted to play outside so my nice ones wouldn’t get dirty, I would think about the tools hanging outside above the table. During these games, I would only ever catch a glance at these tools, as hiding was the first priority. But the one that would always catch my eye was the longest tool up there. It had a dark barrel, long like the saw near it but twice as dangerous, and a short wooden handle, tan and curved. I can’t recall the detail or the make. But I can remember when I first realized that my family owned a gun. When I first thought to myself that my safety wasn’t necessarily guaranteed. When I first wondered who would come grab the gun if someone broke into our house, and what if something happened to my parents? What if I’d need to come and grab it, and what if I didn’t know how to shoot it? Wouldn’t it just be easier to hide?

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My mother has asked me to kill her on several occasions, mostly over breakfast. She tells me that she’s afraid of losing herself to her old age. “Niña, I want you to kill me before I forget. Just shoot me before I get old.” I say no, that I can’t commit murder, that I can’t go to jail for her, that I won’t do it. Protesting the act of matricide in itself doesn’t come up. She asks if I won’t at least put something in her drink then, and when I refuse, she calls out to my sister and asks Julie if she’ll shoot her in the head. I continue to eat my scrambled eggs while my mother gets up to make my sister some pancakes.

We don’t talk about this outside of when she brings it up. I think back to it on days where my mom wishes she could finally open her boutique that she left behind when she moved to the US with my father, on days she tells me that she’s wasted her life. I thought back to it on days where I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself going forward but there was an ease in knowing I could buy something that would end that line of questioning in a quick second. I try not to think back to it very often. But I call my mom at least six times a week.

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I used to ask my mom to buy me one of those dart rifles from the store. The kids in the ads looked so cool, like they could crawl behind their couches, do a somersault, and shoot their friends in the back behind refracting sunglasses. I’d ask her, and she said if I wanted a toy so bad that I could save my allowance for one. She’d tell me this as we walked down the grocery aisles, the cold meats making my knees ache. My mother knew full well that I never had an allowance.

I suppose that I never really needed one. My parents provided everything that I needed, even if it wasn’t everything that I wanted. In elementary school, the other kids would bring their DS systems on party days, and I’d patiently wait for my friend to let me play just one minigame on Mario Party when she was bored. We’d share stories as we scraped the stylus across a jellied screen, Kody telling us about how his dad did great at dove hunting this year, and that Kody was going to get to join him soon. Kody had his gun picked out, doodling a scrawled version on the whiteboard. It’s interesting how hunting has moved away from a means of sustenance to a sport. Maybe our tools becoming too advanced has taken the thrill away, and we need another source that now. Either way, Kody didn’t bring his DS next year for party days. Or any year after that.

He kept going dove hunting as each December rolled around. I never took to hunting, at least in that capacity. Recently, I’ve picked up a new video game, a first-person shooter. I aim my cross-hairs down sights, the ping of the elimination coming right after the trigger is clicked under my right index finger. It’s an odd feeling, watching the red blood splatter on the pixelated avatars. You know they’re not real people, that there’s an abstraction between the person playing and their realistically rendered character. There’s a sense of pride in your accomplishment. You see the chat move, other players upset at their quick death, the impatience obvious as they wait for their characters to respawn. 12 seconds seems an eternity for a chance at a second life. And then a third, and a fourth, and so on. I’ve become quite good at sniping. Sometimes, it makes me wonder what I could do behind the lens of a real scope. If I’d get the same satisfaction after I pull the trigger.

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My dad doesn’t like to talk about his medical discharge. The first time my dad took me to the VA’s office, it just seemed like a boring appointment to me. I can’t remember the man he spoke with, but I remember the beige of his office and the warm oaks of his desk and the look of the door from sitting on the bench outside after my dad told me to wait out there for a sec. I didn’t hear much of anything other than an injury by his ear before I was sent out. I wasn’t taken back to the VA’s office again. We were only on the way to the gas station for seventy-nine cent soft drinks anyways.

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I can still recall the way my knees would ache as I kneeled at the pew, cracks in the plastic scuffing my skin. My mother hasn’t taken me in a while. But when she calls, I’ll tell her that I still recite my prayers every night even though I can barely recall our Father.

Sometimes I think that going to church is like going to a public bathroom. It’s a little formal, in a way, because I’m supposed to be quiet and stay in my own space and respect the people around me. The people you see there are pretty interesting, too. Most of the time, it’s just strangers that you see in passing once a week. But every once in a while, you’ll run into your old friend from 7th grade who just unfollowed you on Instagram and you’re caught in an awkward conversation that is forced by your shared location. You both have wet hands when you leave. When I was younger, my mom would make me go to both places. She’d notice when I was about to piss my pants in the Walmart and take me by the ear to the second smelliest part of the store. I’d hate every second, but I’d stay longer than I needed to out of spite. That’s also why I didn’t receive my first communion until fifth grade.

The only real difference is while I still force myself to go to the stalls outside my writing class, St. Francis of Assisi has not had my presence in quite a while. But on days where I hear that another cracked set of dozen kids was slaughtered, I think that maybe if I take a few steps closer to those pews I’ll find some answers. It’s hard to think that there can be mercy behind a strict stone chapel, yet they’ll tell me that the lord finds a way. I suppose that the stained glass is fragile enough.

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I dream of old cowboy films, walking down a desert road at sunset, my deadliest enemy twenty paces behind me. The sun blazes above us, and to the west the old clock tower is about to strike noon. At our last steps, the tower chimes. I’d turn and face him for our last times, aiming my trusty six-shooter right between his gaze. I roll to the side, and he drops to the earth. The girl that I’d been flirting with for the whole film runs into my arms and awards me the sheriff badge from her dead father as I swoop her into an embrace. In one arm I hold her up, as she’s swooning in front of the saturated scarlet and golden hues behind us, and in my other I holster my revolver, keeping my trigger finger sated. My two loves frame my cowboy persona as the film draws to a close, a screen of black encircling our happy ending. Not only did my gun win me the duel, but it got me a new job and a new girl. My gun killed that man. I draw out my knife as we walk away, picking out a loose piece of flesh from between my teeth.  

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I think about what it would be like to hold a gun in my hand a lot. Something with the power to end a life shouldn’t fit so neatly in my palm.

It’s not like I can even shoot one, anyways. My sister can. Thirteen, going on AR-15. She showed me her practice targets from her first time at the shooting range. She was so proud but trying to hide it. If we were that kind of family, I’m sure my mom would’ve put them on the fridge along with the proverbial tests and drawings. But my mother’s admiration was shown in large smiles and favorite meals. I’m not really sure how we celebrated her accomplishment. All I can remember is how close the holes all were to the center. She did such a great job for her first time! Imagine how much better she’ll get!

I’m not sure if I want to know how to shoot one. Leaving out my moral standings, it just seems like a lot. It just feels like too much responsibility. There’s this part of me that says that once I learn, I’m going to change forever. That my body and mind will undergo a metamorphosis triggered by a discarded shell.