Task 7: Read While Leaning Back in a Chair
--By Caleb March
In the future, everyone carries a gun. They have to. It's the law. This story is part of A Smarter Gun, a Motherboard series on user-authenticated firearms and whether or not there is a high-tech solution to curbing gun violence.
Paul rounded the corner at the end of his block, greeting a neighbor as they passed. The sun was warm on his back and it made him feel fresh and free from violence.
But as soon as he reached the next street, a man came limping around the corner and leaned hard against the stop sign, clinging to it as his body crumpled to the sidewalk. Paul took a half step backwards and froze. The man looked old, perhaps in his eighties, and even at this distance, Paul could see that the left side of his torso and his legs were soaked with black blood. The man's arm searched the air around him, groping for some invisible aide, while his other hand clung tightly to the base of the signpost as though he were hanging from a cliff by a protruding tree stump.
Paul swallowed hard, shaking with nausea and praying that the scene before him would end. He turned to look around. There was no one in sight, the street was empty and the houses quiet and abandoned. He approached the wounded man, whose movements were becoming weaker and intermittent. The sunlight danced around him, bursting from between the dense leaves of the tall oak trees like flashbulbs. Paul stood over him, his shadow cast across the ancient face that squinted with confused, pleading eyes. His wrinkled lips moved soundlessly, his dry tongue probing the air.
A spectrum of outcomes played through Paul's frightened mind, each scenario ending in disgrace and punishment. The wounded man's hand fell on Paul's foot, the veiny fingers searching the contours of his boot. He tried to step away from the deathly hand, but his feet were cemented to the ground.
He looked at his own hand and he was shocked to find his gun aimed steadily at the bleeding man. He didn't remember drawing the weapon but he understood in an instant why he had done it. The old man was looking up at him, his dry face drained and translucent in the morning light; his jaw clicked, as if it were trying to tap out his last will in Morse code.
A breeze stirred in the branches above the street, and the white noise froze the scene. Paul felt himself high in the air, watching the horrific dream unfold from the vantage of those floating leaves. He had to wake up so the real world could return and banish this moment from his mind.
Paul closed his eyes slowly, until tears welled up along his nose. The recoil of the gun shook his body and he fell backwards into the ringing silence, smiling as he drifted up into the ethereal shadows cast by the dancing leaves.
Paul had to carry a gun, it was the law.
He hated himself for fearing his weapon, but his reverence for the law eclipsed that fear.
Each time Paul stepped across the threshold of his front door, his hand automatically danced over the handle of the pistol that hung firmly in the black, leather holster at his waist. The gun was freshly cleaned, regulation, and the familiar odors of oil and leather polish rose up to his nostrils like prying fingers. His friends at work joked about the comfort of those same odors that choked Paul. They made crude puns and innuendos about death and the arousing smell of their guns. Inwardly he recoiled from it all, the vulgar stenches and the vulgar office banter, but to the outside world he played along with his peer group, contributing his own false display of bloodlust and machismo.
Guns were more than the law, they were the social tie that bound men together, and the thought of being cast out by his society, by the brotherhood, was more than Paul could bear.
The law: every home must have a fully operational, well-maintained, loaded gun. Every man must wear a pistol that meets the above criteria at all times, except within the confines of his home. These rules being punishable to the fullest extent of the law by the judiciary, and without sympathy.
For Paul, the minor stipulation that he need not wear a gun at home was the only thing that kept him from losing his nerve. He trembled with anticipation at the end of each day, when he could return to the sanctuary of his house and unshackle himself from the burden that hung at his hip.
Most of the men that Paul knew were in love with their guns. Paul had been invited to gun parties many times by his coworkers and had been compelled to go, on at least a dozen occasions, in order to keep up appearances. He could fit in when he had to and not show the weakness that frosted around the core of his masculinity every day.
At these parties, the men would sit around a table and lay out their weapons under the chandelier light, watching the fragmented glare play across the polished shafts and curves, accentuating the erotic details. The room would grow quiet as the proud owners surveyed the landscape of phallic glory set out before them. Then the alcohol would be brought out, delivered by a stoic housewife, and conversation could begin.
Mostly the talk was of the guns: the latest models and the newest technological developments, rare antiques with modern updates, and high-tech holsters that improved draw speed. Paul kept up his end of the chatter, but a steady nausea danced through his body while he spoke, and occasionally he felt his face begin to flush, and he would excuse himself to the bathroom.
In the mirror, he would watch the blood drain from his face and beads of cold sweat bloom along his hairline. He would take deep breaths, running his shaking hands under warm water. Then he would return, composed, to the gladiatorial arena in the next room. The other men would look up at him as he entered, smelling his discomfort like predators in the wild.
Visions of the gun parties and the dark, skeptical eyes of his coworkers played back in Paul's memory. He could feel their gazes penetrating him like bullets. He could never tell how much of it all was in his head.
The laws in his state also required passing regular marksmanship and gun maintenance tests designed to keep the male population trained and adept in the use of their weapons. Failure to pass the exams resulted in a fine and mandatory training classes that were quite time consuming, not to mention humiliating.
Aside from the requirements outlined by the state, local customs demanded that weapons be upgraded at least once a year to enhance the general atmosphere of goodwill and camaraderie. In Paul's hamlet, women were also encouraged to make regular visits to the shooting gallery, and the men would often brag about the shooting prowess of their wives.
Paul took pride in his expertise at the gun range, where he could imagine the gun as an instrument rather than a deadly weapon, and shooting became a game of skill devoid of any looming conflict. His prowess had earned him the admiration of his peers and was largely responsible for keeping their suspicions about his virility in check.
His terror stemmed from other clauses of the law: if a man sees a violent conflict or a crime in progress, he must intervene, with deadly force if necessary. The necessity of deadly force in these instances being entirely at the discretion of the citizen, though it was rare that the law did not support such lethal intervention. Failure to adhere to the law is punishable by significant jail time, and even death, in certain circumstances.
Paul and his coworkers often talked about an incident that took place several years earlier when a man stumbled upon a drifter engaged in the violent rape of a woman in a dark grove of trees. The citizen shouted and drew his pistol, but due to subpar upkeep the gun jammed and would not fire. The drifter's gun had no such problems, and he shot the man down. The next day, the woman was found dead in the grove, but the citizen was still alive in a pool of blood nearby. When the drifter was picked up later that day, he told the whole story with a prideful smirk, of the pathetic man who had him in his sights and couldn't pull the trigger. The drifter hung for murder, but the wounded citizen hung too and worse, because he died in shame as a coward and an outcast.
Paul felt the heat of his breathe as he exhaled, the condensation beading around his mouth and nose. Course cloth pushed against his lips when he inhaled, grating against his tender skin. His eyes were open in spite of the total darkness that enclosed him.
Gloved hands roughly guided him down a corridor. He could see it all, in memories recalled from the public broadcasts he had seen on television. The audience was now watching him, fixedly and dutifully, shaking their heads in pity, trying to project themselves under the hood of the shackled figure that staggered down the bright corridor on the screen.
Paul let out a moan.
His tragedy would be recounted at gun parties, around tables and over beers, and afterwards, his friends would sit in silence and remember him, each of them asking themselves if it could have been them instead of Paul.
He felt a change in the pitch of the echoing footsteps around him. He had entered a large room, and after half a dozen steps his guides stopped and turned him around.
He knew from the broadcasts that he was now in front of a small grandstand where various public officials and the relatives of the victim would be seated, their stern expressions waiting for justice to take its course.
As it had turned out, the old man at the stop sign had been well-connected, his family holding substantial influence with the city council. Not that it would have mattered for Paul if the old man hadn't been—two witnesses had come forward and recounted how Paul had shot him dead in cold blood. Because of Paul's failure, the initial shooting of the old man was still unsolved and would likely remain that way, since Paul had killed the only known witness.
All this information had been relayed to Paul by his lawyer. To protect the victims and mitigate impartiality among the panel of presiding judges, defendants were not allowed in the courtroom. Paul spent the trial in a cell deep below the courthouse, but his lawyer had told him enough: the sobbing widow trembling in her wheel chair; the stoic daughter who held her mother's frail hand; the sons, proud members of the community, seething with rage, demanding the law's mercilessness.
Paul could hear a man's officious voice speaking from somewhere to his left. The tone was monotonous, like the hum of machinery in a factory, and he could not follow the words.
Silence followed, and firm hands grabbed his arms again, leading him up a small staircase.
Then he was alone, and he felt that he had stopped breathing. A rope was around his neck but he didn't remember anyone putting it there.
Beyond the walls of the room, the collective disgust of the world pummeled him with invisible blows.
Paul started to faint and the floor panel dropped out from under him. His neck snapped back, and he wanted to wake up and forget his awful dream.