This is the first thing I ever wrote, written nearly one decade ago. I wrote and edited it in one night in my sophomore year of high school, and submitted it the next day to the school’s creative writing competition. A few weeks later, I found out I’d won the competition. I hate to wonder about whether or not I would have kept writing had I not won.

The story is dark, but I remember feeling hopeful while writing it. I would have told you that it was actually meant to be a happy story. It’s hard to share—it brings with it a lot of baggage—yet I’m proud to publish it.

Gus Smith, March 2021.

Jake picked up the gun from the table. The grip of the .357 was worn. He could feel where the dimpled surface had been rubbed smooth by constant use. He had only held the gun once before. He had only fired the gun once before. He had never fired (or held, for that matter) another gun after that. Had it been any other gun, Jake would’ve known. The feel of the smoothened grip was forever ingrained in his memory.

It was a bright Sunday afternoon. The sun streamed in through the windows, except the broken ones that had been covered with cardboard or boarded up with plywood. Jake sat on the floor, watching cartoons on their old 15” RCA television. He was happy, because today was his thirteenth birthday. He wasn’t having a party, nor would there be a cake. There had never been a party. His mother had gotten him a cake once before, two years ago, but he had never tasted it. His father, enraged at his wife for “making him look like a fool for forgetting his son’s birthday,” had thrown it off the back porch into the grass. All other years his birthday had passed completely forgotten by his father, but always with a small gift from his mother hidden under his pillow or in his shoe. This year he expected to be no different, which was fine with him. It was shaping up to be the best birthday yet, as his father had not yet returned from the last night’s round of bar-hopping. Any time spent away from his father was good time.

His mother was nowhere to be seen. In fact, he hadn’t seen her since the morning. She had left in their old red Chevy truck very early. He thought she might have been searching for her husband, but she hadn’t done that in a while. Jake was starting to think that she liked to avoid his father as much as he did.

Suddenly he heard the distinct rumble of the truck approaching. It continued to grow louder, until she had pulled it off the street and parked it on the lawn. Reflections from the smooth surface of the car shot beams of light through the window, disturbing the perfectly parallel rays of light outlined in the dusty air. He heard the opening and slamming of car doors and the sound of someone scuttling down the narrow alley to the backyard. He approached the window that looked out back, but just before he could get a clear view of what was happening, his mother called out.

“Jacob, stay away from the window and don’t come out until I tell you to!”

His mother had always had the gift of perfect timing, or the ability to see the future. Or both. Many times had she stopped him from hitting something on his bike, tripping on a crack, or walking in on his father during one of his fits.

She also had the uncanny ability to make him love his first name. During roll call at school, teachers always sounded so harsh in pronouncing it. He always insisted people call him Jake, and any time someone would call him Jacob, he would almost cringe. But his mother was different. She cradled the name, protected it. When she said it, even when she was chiding him, she handled it with such care, as if handling a newborn. His father, on the other hand, never called him Jacob. Jake couldn’t even remember the last time he referred to him as Jake. It was usually just a “hey you” or a “kid”, or even (on the bad days) “you little prick.”

His train of thought was interrupted when his mother called out to him again. He had forgotten she was out there. The levity of the day compounded with the warm, blanketing summer air had put him in a sort of trance. He had failed to detect that something was happening outside. His mother had just finished preparing something.

Jake stepped through the open door to the back porch. Suddenly the vision of his eleventh birthday visualized in front of him. He saw his father storm through the doorway, cake in hand, and pitch it like a discus. The vision faded as his father stormed through the alley, not to return for a full two days. He suffered from these attacks frequently, yet he wouldn’t say “suffered,” nor call them “attacks.” More recently, the visions were becoming more vivid, because Jake was conditioning himself to concentrate. In this one, he could faintly hear the ignition skipping in their Chevy as his dad pulled away.

As Jake approached the side of the porch, he saw what his mother had been doing. She had set up a miniature birthday party on the picnic table in the yard, complete with cake and even some presents. He had never had a party before. As he walked out to the table, she began to sing to him, and strangely enough, he found himself singing along. Jake could never remember being so happy in his life. He had never loved someone as much as he loved his mother at this instant. She handed him the gift on the top of the pile. He tore the wrapping paper across the top to see it was a book—or a play, actually. Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.

Jake hadn’t finished removing the paper when he heard the clatter of pots and pans in the kitchen. Suddenly his very drunk, very angry father was on the porch, yelling strings of incomprehensible words punctuated with obscenities. As his father stormed out towards them, he understood three words amidst the yelling, “not this again.”

His father half ran, half stumbled to the picnic table. Metal pan in hand, he took a swing at the cake. Jake’s mother easily deflected the drunken man’s swing, but his father was instantly enraged. Wearing the face of a madman, Jake’s father turn and swung at his mother, first hitting her in the side and then, as she doubled over, in the skull.

No more than thirty seconds had passed since he heard the clatter in the kitchen, but the first blow of the pan slowed down time. As his father wound up for the next swing, Jake’s body reacted faster than his mind. He lunged forward and grabbed at the small of his father’s back, where his untucked shirt covered his belt. Before his mind realized what he was looking for, his hand found it. He pulled the grip of the .357 out from under his father’s belt, just as the pan connected with his mother’s head with a dull thump. The drunken man instantly rounded on his son to find him aiming the handgun directly at his head. For a single second, his father’s face conveyed the recognition of what he had done and the understanding of what was coming, what must come, next. Yet it was not that which lit the fire inside Jake. From behind his father, he heard his mother’s body hit the ground hard. She had made no move to catch her fall. Only then did Jake’s mind catch up with his body. Only then did Jake pull the trigger.

Jake slid a bullet into the chamber. The sound of metal sliding on metal filled the empty room. The gun hadn’t been used for months, even years, yet the smooth metallic sliding sounded like that of a well oiled machine.

Being in the factory, you wouldn’t even guess that outside there raged a sub-zero blizzard. Within the space of the trip from the outer door to the work floor, Jake usually shed about three layers. At the end of his ten hour shift, he would go out the door in only one, being too hot to wear any more. Today was no different; he had heard on the TV at the bar that the cold front was right on top of them. Or at least he thought he had heard; he was usually drunk (or getting there) when he was at the bar. He didn’t normally catch the weather, as he didn’t have a TV at home. He had a bed, a stove, and a toilet. That’s what $20 a week got him. At 19 years old, he thought he was doing well for himself. It was better than the orphanage.

The factory had its own climate. This wasn’t an exaggeration; Jake had heard engineers in passing conversation discussing how glad they were to not be on the work floor. According to what he’d heard from them, the floor is so large and the ceiling so high that invisible clouds of evaporated sweat and exhaled breath form at the highest point and create a gentle rain. Jake hadn’t realized (until then) that there was a constant light mist falling on his skin. This design flaw helped management anyway, since they didn’t have to pay for heating.

He walked in the door, struggling to close it against the burning wind, and immediately took off his down coat. By the time he reached the clocking-in machine (to management, it was the Time Attendance Recorder) he was down to his working clothes—stained jeans and an old polo with the company logo. The company was just another Midwest manufacturer of auto parts that would go unknown to anyone who wasn’t day-trading at the NYSE.

Today, as the bulletin told Jake, he’d be manufacturing bumpers. Any blue collar worker would tell you this was an easy job. Normally, it was. Most factories were supplying automotive manufacturers with plastic bumpers, which were made from pouring molten plastic into a mold. Management, however, had been slow on the uptake and decided to continue manufacturing metal bumpers. The bumpers were Jake’s least favorite job, because where other parts were manufactured mechanically with someone supervising and pulling the occasional lever, the bumpers needed a hand to guide them.

He walked to the machine, which was located near the master conveyor belt. This belt was fed by smaller tributaries snaking all over the floor in a seemingly random pattern.a It carried all parts first to the cooling chambers and then to storage and shipping. The machine was composed a burning furnace, which heated the raw sheet of metal, and a hydraulic hammer situated over an anvil. While two people would normally work the machine, management had instructed the engineers to rig the machine with a pulley system, which (they thought) would make it a one man job. It didn’t.

He started out slow, like he normally did. It took a while to get used to guiding and shaping the metal wearing the thick leather gloves that protected his hands from the heat of the furnace. One, two, three done in the first half-hour. He was running behind schedule, but he was only warming up. However, today, he could not concentrate on his work. Every minute or so he heard the ominous sound of stressed metal letting out a sharp creak. This was fairly common to hear coming from the inner floor, yet it was coming from something in front of him. His machine was between him and the metal corrugated wall. Behind the wall was the cooling complex, with various switches and buttons near the opening of the belt and different sized pipes running from the belt and out along the walls and ceiling.

He’d just finished his first hour when he noticed the creaking had ceased. Many would see this as a good thing, but Jake knew stress fractures didn’t heal themselves. He decided that after he finished the bumper he had started, he would try to warn management about it. Obviously they wouldn’t do anything about it, but he might be able to convince them to switch him to another machine.

Suddenly, the creak was back. It was loud enough that Jake noticed that others turned their heads in his direction to find the source of the sound. Jake’s body reacted faster than his mind. He covered his face and neck using both his arms, but as far as his mind could tell, there was nothing actually coming toward him.

That was when a coolant pipe exploded on the wall on the other side of his machine. The bumper was suspended under the hammer, unguided by a human hand. Coolant sprayed over Jake, but his mask and goggles protected him. It was then that he heard it. The smooth metallic sliding of the well-oiled hydraulic hammer, pummeling the now-brittle bumper at 60 thousand-pound impacts per minute. Each impact unleashed a harsh resounding sound that echoed throughout the floor. After one impact, cracks were forming. After the second, the bumper exploded into thousands of shards. The force floored Jake instantly, and, though he felt no pain, he went unconscious.

Jake would awake in a hospital half a day later, where they would tell him small shards had been surgically removed from his chest, face, and arms, but that two large shards had sliced through his biceps. After therapy, he was told, they would partially heal, but he would only regain a fraction of his former strength. The surgery on his face would leave lasting scars. There were two pieces of good news, which the doctors had saved for last. First, he was told that though his biceps were damaged, if his arms had not been there, the large shards would have definitely reached his face and jugular and killed him. Second, politicians and activists in the region had been looking for a case that would help them tighten safety regulations in factories. This meant that he would be taking management to court on the state’s credit card, and also that the settlement would probably have him set for life.

Having filled the chambers, Jake struggled to lift the gun. He took careful aim, using two hands to steady the shaking barrel. His fingers slid over the trigger and he began to apply pressure. He saw a bright flash, as the darkness was filled with light, and the explosion rang in his head.

Jake sat on his porch. He was enjoying the fifth year of his “early retirement” (as he called it, sometimes scornfully) on the coast of California. This particular spring night was warm and cloudless. The ocean rolled its waves over the sand of the beach that was within walking distance of his condominium. It was like something you see in travel magazines, yet Jake couldn’t help but think the only thing out of place was him.

At 25 years old, he had the face of a middle-aged man. The scars from the accident hadn’t changed one bit since the day of the accident. Years of physical labor had roughened his skin and the beating sun had browned it. Physical therapy had thickened his biceps once again, yet they were scarred and oddly disproportionate to the rest of his body.

Jake knew he didn’t belong here. He was beginning to wonder if he belonged anywhere. He’d lived on the East Coast, the frigid north of Canada, the hot and dry areas of Mexico, and he’d even spent a year in the Andes of Peru. Nowhere did he feel home.

He heard the sliding door open and then close again. His girlfriend stepped out to the railing of the porch and looked out towards the sea. He didn’t know if she had noticed he was sitting behind her. On the beach, college kids were lighting bonfires and setting up fireworks to celebrate the end of the semester. Jake stood up, enjoying the rush of spring air on his face. He walked to the railing and wrapped his girlfriend in his arms as the first of the fireworks streamed into the sky.a Jake saw a bright flash, as the darkness was filled with light, and the explosion rang in his head. His girlfriend looked up at him, smiling.

Another firework exploded in the sky above them, ringing in Jake’s head. He shut his eyes and saw the light behind them fade.

Once again darkness flooded in, as the bullet tore through Jake’s skull.

The ringing in his head was still there. He kept his eyes shut, wondering what he would see. Eventually he built up the courage to open them, just in time to see the remnants of a firework fading into the black sky and the trail of a new one bursting through it. His girlfriend pulled him closer. He was happy.

Jake’s body slumped to the floor, eyes closed, smiling.