Edition 23: Girls’ Gun by Clint Spivey
Marina is the good girl, the prodigal daughter, but finds it hard to fit in. On a late night excursion she makes some older friends by an old war relic who aren’t quite sure why she’s there. A story mixing new world and the unsung heroines of the past. SY
Ghosts are like war, inviting curiosity until either is experienced. Then people realize why both are better avoided. I was twelve when I found one, and then the other.
The gun pointed right at us. Its long, slender barrel gaped open at the end, large enough to swallow my arm past the elbow, if I risked inserting it.
Our little group filed from the bus behind the teacher and toward the museum. Girls chatted. Boys punched or otherwise abused one another while rushing inside.
“Hey Marina,” one of my classmates said while holding open the door with three other girls. “Guess what?”
“Go away.” She closed the door in my face.
Pranks are hard to avoid when denied even time to react.
Waiting for their lingering silhouettes to vanish from behind the frosted glass, I turned to the gun.
It was massive. An olive green beast sprawled upon four rubber tires. Cranks, dials, and one distinct, triggered handle whose purpose even I, at twelve years old, could discern. Only when sweat beaded from my temples in the August sun did I enter the museum.
The dim interior held my interest for little longer than it did my classmates. Our teacher maintained vigil over her smartphone while shouting at the occasional kid. A gray haired man with glasses and a wrinkled tie explained dusty uniforms behind glass. He had about as much success capturing our attention as our teacher.
I trudged behind the others, who laughed and joked without me. Solitude stretched the hour or so it took navigating the exhibits.
“Are there any questions?” The man rubbed his hands and smiled. I doubt even our teacher heard him.
A lonely kid doesn’t mean a quiet one. Often, extra stuff wells up, waiting to come out. Maybe that’s why I raised my hand. Or maybe because he seemed as alone in the crowd as I.
“Yes?” He seemed surprised but pleased to be taken up on his offer.
“The gun outside is pointing straight ahead,” I said. “Isn’t that dangerous?”
“It’s not pointing up?” He shook his head. “Local kids. They come at night. I park in the back so I didn’t see it. I’ll fix it. But it’s not dangerous. It hasn’t worked in years.
“Mrs. Varennikova liked my report.” I spooned potatoes around my plate. “One of the best in class.”
“Why can’t you be more like Marina?” Papa said to Sascha, my nineteen year old sister. “She’s only twelve and behaves better than you.”
“Because I never wanted to be best in class.” Sascha’s food was untouched. I was unsure why she’d even sat down to eat.
“I like your hair short like that,” I said. The blonde streaked to red at the tips where before they’d been blue. Would my dark, wavy hair color as well?
“You’ll never find a job looking like that,” Papa said. “Will you live at home forever? Stealing our money for your drugs?”
“I don’t do drugs.” Sascha looked to the window.
Mom said, “Maybe we could go to the lake together this weekend.”
“I know you steal from us.” Papa was undeterred. He’d touched less of his food than I. “Work or uni, but this freeloading will stop. I don’t work to support drug habits.”
“Never asked you to.” Sascha pushed away from the table and left.
Papa did the same. “Don’t walk away from me.” Doors opened, and then slammed.
Mom and I finished eating alone.
I don’t know why I climbed out of my window that night. Why I wanted to see that gun. By the time I’d wheeled my bike to the street my heart raced in anticipation of being discovered. I don’t know if I was relieved or disappointed that no one noticed. I rode for the museum.
Smoke rose from behind the gun, following the skyward pointing barrel (museum man must have raised it), before billowing into lazy clouds in the heavy, summer night. A glowing ember floated out from behind the metal monster.
“You need something, kid?” said the cigarette’s owner. Another girl joined her from the front. Both looked to be Sascha’s age. The question carried no malice. Just the irritation I recognized when my sister or her friends were reduced to addressing me.
“What the hell are you doing out here?” Smoke blasted from the first girl’s nostrils. “This is no place for a kid.”
“I wanted to see the gun,” I said. “The man said someone points it down at night.”
The other, two blonde braids dangling from her brimless, green cap, cocked her head.
“It’s for shooting planes,” Braids said. “Why would we point it down?”
“It doesn’t shoot anything anymore,” I said.
“Stand in front of it.” Tobacco took a long pull. “We’ll see if still shoots.”
This girl’s casual words were like steel to my sister’s stones.
“No―no thank you.”
“Leave her alone.” A third girl appeared from behind the gun. “She looks barely ten.” She stepped to within a few paces. “Are you lost? Do you need help?”
“I’m twelve. And I’m not lost. I came here on purpose.”
“On purpose?” Dark hair hung from beneath the new girl’s cap, curling past her ears. It shined with a luster at odds with her drab green hat and over-sized, collared shirt. Her smooth skin drank the moonlight.
“Why come all the way out here?” she said. “Don’t you know it’s dangerous? You should be in the city with everyone else. ”
I balled my fists. “I’ll be back before anyone misses me.” Honesty fueled my bravado. I’d snuck out before. Making it as far as the street. Once.
“If you came all this way without bringing me something,” Tobacco said, “I’m gonna belt you.”
“How about one of my Dad’s razors. You could tackle that upper lip of yours.” I winced with instant regret. Similar quick comments earned me the occasional backside of Sascha’s hand. Would this tough girl, smoking near a gun after 1:00 AM, show me hers?
Instead, she and Braids stared while Beauty laughed.
“You’d need to swipe his bayonet,” Beauty said. “They don’t make razors that can best Mariya’s stache.”
“Shut up, Natasha,” Tobacco said. “You’re just pissed she has bigger tits than you at twelve.”
Braids snorted trying to quell her laughter.
“Can I have one of those?” I pointed to Tobacco’s dangling smoke.
She took another long pull, stepped close, and blew it in my face. “You think these are free? What did you bring me, huh?”
“Uh…well. I have some mints.” I fished out the pack from my pocket. More regret as I offered the kiddy candy to the smoking girl. She snatched it from my hand.
“Where did you get these?” she said.
Tobacco investigated all sides of the plastic case before flicking open the top and dumping a few into her mouth. She tossed them to Beauty and said, “These are good.”
“How in the hell did you get these?” Beauty said.
Were these girls stupid? Then again, they were hanging out at a relic gun at 1:00 in the morning. But then, so was I. “I can get you more, if you want.”
“Sure,” Tobacco said. “And hot stroganov and chocolate. You can have all the smokes you want if you bring that. I’ve got plenty.”
Were they homeless? Did they really long for a hot meal and some sweets. They’d devoured the cheap packet of mints and were examining the box. Whatever. I could play along.
“I’ll be back tomorrow. You want Chinese or American chocolate?” This brought more laughs.
“Definitely American,” Tobacco said. “The stroganov can be from China.”
I mounted my bicycle, unsure what to think.
“Hey,” Beauty said. “Be careful. Do you hear me? It’s not safe to be out with pockets full of sweets.”
“Marina.” My mother shook me. “You’ve overslept.”
I coaxed a few extra minutes out of her by swinging my feet from the bed, only to retreat beneath the covers the moment she left. The reprieve was short lived.
“Get. Up.” She tore the blankets from me.
That day was long. I stole sleep during my classes, but couldn’t forget the previous night. Did I risk missing my chance? Not only for friends, but such cool ones who smoked and cursed after midnight? By lunch I knew I’d bring the things they’d asked for. Maybe it was some kind of test.
Chocolate was easy enough. I even sprung for some American stuff on the way home from school. Altering Mom’s dinner plans took more work.
“You don’t even like stroganov,” she said.
“Sure I do. Especially yours.”
That got her. Dinner was the three of us. Sascha was out. I excused myself long enough to pilfer from the steaming pan. Our ancient metal thermos would keep the food warm for hours. Father entered my bedroom just as I stashed the thermos under my mattress.
“That was nice of you to ask your mother to cook.” He sat beside me on my bed.
“Of course. You girls never ask for things like that anymore. Sascha is always…well, she’s older now. We’re really proud of what a good girl you are.” He wrapped a bear arm around me. Pulled me close before kissing my scalp. There was vodka on his breath. Less than what was usually on Sascha’s, though. “Stay good, little Marina.”
It’s easy to hide things from parents when you’re a good girl.
“I almost shot you,” Braids said, leaning something long that I couldn’t make out behind the great gun. The barrel, pointing upwards, was a pale needle in the swelling moon’s glow. “Don’t sneak up like that.”
“Uh-huh.” My bike clattered to the dirt. “I brought the things.”
“You, again?” Beauty said, emerging from behind the gun with Tobacco.
“With boxes of chocolate, no doubt,” Tobacco said, her cigarette’s glowing cherry dancing with each syllable.
“Not boxes.” I shoved two slabs forward. “Stroganov, too.”
Beauty’s eyes went wide after a sniff of the brown wrappers; the American brand in ridiculous over-sized letters with silver foil peeking at both ends. “You really brought it?”
Tobacco snatched one and tore the foil from an end.
“Shit,” she said through a mouthful. “It’s real.”
“It’s so sweet,” Braids said after a nibble.
“You can’t be out with this,” Beauty said. “If someone finds you…you’ll be lucky if they only arrest you.”
Always the child. “So what. The cops would take me home. Big deal.” I shoved the thermos forward. “You want this or not?”
“There’s meat!” Tobacco said, all cockiness lost as she slurped a mouthful from the thermos cup. The others followed, speaking little except for grunts and tiny moans as they devoured the still steaming stroganov.
“I’m fine.” I waved it off as they offered me the last bits. Homeless. It was the only explanation for their hunger. They looked nor acted like the drug addled girls on TV. But to see them so desperate for food? It troubled even a twelve year old.
“She must be a spy,” Beauty said, her usual, somber expression gone as they passed around the chocolate. Her straight teeth, visible in each smile, rivaled the moonlight.
Tobacco said, “Then make sure to eat all the evidence so they only hang her.”
“Hey,” I said, capitalizing on my new status. “Upper lip. Where’s my smoke?”
All three paused before laughing together. A raucous thing, the combined release of something pent and penned far too long. Braids covered her mouth in failed attempts to hide piggy snorts. Tobacco nodded while fishing through her breast pocket.
“They’re yours.” She tossed the pack. “There’s more if you keep bringing feasts.”
And I was in. I pulled one of the smokes from the crinkled pack with care. The paper was dry. The sweet, scary tobacco taste spilled to the moisture on my lips. I leaned towards Tobacco’s blazing match, destroying my night vision and reducing the world to nothing but the flame at the end of my cigarette. I leaned back, and took my pull.
The world spun. I coughed with such violence I thought I might puke. The girls laughed, but with less venom than I expected.
“What the hell are these?” I’d smoked once. Behind the gym on a dare from laughing classmates. That had been candy compared to this raking fire.
“Government’s finest.” Tobacco winked before letting fly two spouts of thick smoke from her nostrils. “Only the worst for girls about to die.”
I was ginger with my next puffs. Their words were lost on me, so great was my spinning, tobacco fueled excitement. Whatever the reason, these girls needed me. Needed what I could bring.
“Hey,” Tobacco said. “You deaf?”
“Leave her alone, Mariya,” Beauty said. “It’s impossible.”
“No. What?” No point trying try to hide my eagerness now.
“Bread.” Tobacco said. “Think you can angel some up tomorrow?”
“Show me how you guys drop that gun, and it’s a deal.”
“It’s for planes,” Braids said. “It must always point up.”
“But how do you guys lower it every time?”
“How many planes you see over there?” Tobacco waved toward the horizon. “Planes fly. You know? Those loud bastards coming every damn day.”
“Mariya. Stop.” Beauty’s smile was warm. “Do you go to a special class?”
Was she calling me stupid? “Screw you. I’m not the moron runaways camping around an old museum gun.” I stood. “Bread, huh? No problem. Have another pack of smokes for me and be ready to show me how you drop that gun.” I lifted my bike and threw a leg over it.
“Listen.” Beauty stepped close. “You’ve got to be careful coming out here.”
“Yeah, yeah. That song’s getting old. I guess idiots like me can’t even be trusted on a bike ride through the city.”
“Sorry. But you coming out here each night…” She shook her head.
“If you’re not stupid,” Tobacco said. “You’re goddamn crazy.”
“You want butter with that bread?”
I patted the bulge of smokes in my pocket on the ride home. These girls thought I was the crazy one. Should I tell someone? Not the cops. Even at twelve I knew the perils of a snitch. Were they on drugs? Isn’t that what all our teachers said of people who ran away? I hadn’t seen any.
I could at least bring food. Maybe invite them home for dinner. My hand cradled the tiny lump the smokes formed in my pocket.
Mom’s purse lay unguarded on the counter. I only needed a little money. Certainly not the amounts Sascha was constantly lifting. I didn’t like stealing from Mom, but she might ask what the money was for, and I didn’t want to tell about the girls, not yet. Besides, buying food for runaways was better than my sister, who stole to party. Hadn’t that American writer we read about in school, the one who ran boats up some river said, that stealing was OK sometimes?
“You’re really hungry, lately,” Mom said as I spooned another bowl of stew from the pot on the stove.
“Big growth spurt,” Father said. “You’ll have another three centimeters before Christmas.”
“Why do kids run away?”
Mom and Dad looked at each other.
Mom said,”Sometimes, children think it’s better out there than it is at home.” She spoke as if selecting each word with care. “Why? Do you know someone who wants to run away?”
Lying comes easier to a good kid than it should. “There was a girl at school who bragged about it. She said she could do it anytime.”
“Do you see the ideas Sascha gives her?” Father said.
“Do you think they get scared out there? Sleeping outside? Always hungry?”
Mom’s words came faster now. “Who are you talking about? Is someone in trouble?”
“Would it be like camping? An adventure every night?”
“What about winter?” Father said. “That would not be an adventure worth having. Children have to come home sometime. Even mild winters bring people home.”
Had I said too much? I altered my words to the automated responses I’d long ago learned adults liked to hear. My mouth worked to assuage their concerns. An easy task as their talk returned to my sister.
It was new to have purpose. I felt older. No longer a boring, good girl. I smiled as mother laughed at something from father that I didn’t hear. It’s easy to make parents happy. You just didn’t have to worry them.
“Lay off, already,” Tobacco said through a mouthful of bread. “She can obviously make it out here.”
“Dammit, Mariya,” Beauty said. “She’s going to get killed.”
I rolled my eyes. This again?
“What is this?” Braids sniffed the small tub of margarine.
Tobacco dug out a glob with a hunk of bread. “It’s goddamn delicious is what it is. I’ll eat it all if you two keep yapping.”
Beauty shook her head, but she ate, as did Braids.
They looked terrible. Braid’s right eye twitched and she kept looking up. Beauty nibbled her food with a weary stare that searched for things far away. Only Tobacco seemed unchanged, though her cigarette’s ember shook in the dark.
“Do you―do you guys need help?” I asked.
“We need a goddamn miracle after today,” Tobacco said. “There’s never been that many before.” I thought she might lose her smoke the way her hand trembled. “If they send that many again―”
“Shut up.” Braids buried her face in her hands. “There will never be that many again. That many planes is impossible.”
I looked up squinting. There was nothing. No flashing red and green lights tracked their silent course in the dark. Nothing but stars, fuzzy through the summer haze.
“You guys could come to my house sometime. My mother and father would be happy to have you for dinner.”
“We can’t leave,” Beauty said. “We have to stay.”
“Maybe we could go for a little bit,” Braids said.
“We’ll get in trouble,” Beauty said. “We’re not kids any more. This is for real.”
“I haven’t told anyone about you. I could say you were my friends. My parents always want me to have friends.”
“Hey, the crazy girl is back,” Tobacco said. “I’d missed you after all this food. But it’s good you’re crazy. Hell. It must take a rail car full of crazy to come back after what happened today.”
“What happened today?”
They paused. Even Tobacco was without comment.
“Stop it,” Beauty said. “It’s not funny anymore.” She looked down and nibbled her bread.
“It was just an idea.” I lit my own smoke. The harsh tobacco sent my head buzzing while tickling my stomach with a queasiness that threatened vomiting if I let it. I swallowed down the nausea and let the nicotine do its work.
No one spoke much after that. The girls devoured every crumb. They kept looking around. And up. Always up.
Who knew what life was like for them out here on their own. The perils awaiting errant kids were drilled into our heads in school and at home. Stranger danger, drugs, sex, pregnancy. Updated fairy tale goblins that snatched naughty kids in the night. What lurked for these girls?
I stood and touched the gun. Despite the dark, it clung to the day’s heat. I sniffed, trying to find any of its ancient smells. Across the years, even with my cigarette, I thought I could taste its powder.
The gun was strength. Power. Was this why they came here? Was it their haven? A place to feel safe where there was no home to return to in the night?
“It’s so old,” I said.
“Too old,” Beauty said. “Everything we have is old or broken. But it’s all we have. So we use it.”
Beauty’s eyes, so bright, even in the dark, saw more than I could.
The windows throbbed with pale television.
I crept through the back, abandoning stealth once the door was shut. It was much easier to explain being awake late at night once inside. I entered the living room behind my sister. Sascha sprawled on the sofa, lit by the TV. A cigarette burned in the ashtray on the table beside her, sending smoke in thin, untroubled streams to the ceiling. Dad’s bottle was beside an empty glass.
“Jesus,” she said, after finally turning. “How long have you been standing there?”
“You just getting in?” Pushing her legs out of the way, I sat on the sofa.
“I’ve been here awhile,” she said. “Are you just getting in?”
I shrugged, feigning nonchalance before removing my own smokes.
“Big, girl,” she said.
I fired up one of Tobacco’s monsters and took a little puff before hurling my smoke into Sascha’s delicate little stream.
“Christ. What the hell are those?” She snatched the pack and turned it over in the TV’s light. “Where did you get these?”
I reclaimed my pack. “From friends. I think they’re homeless. They always ask me for food.”
Sascha sat up. “Have they asked you for money?”
I shook my head.
“Have they offered to give you anything…stronger than cigarettes?”
“You mean like drugs?”
She exhaled and touched her temples with thumb and forefinger. Just like Papa. “Yeah. Like drugs. Did they smoke weed or anything else?”
“No. They act really weird. They’re always scared and freak out when I bring them food. Like they haven’t eaten in awhile. But besides the smokes,” I waved the pack, “they don’t use anything else.”
Sascha leaned back. “Well, don’t let Dad and Mom find out. They’ll probably blame me when good little Marina turns out to be a person and not their perfect student.”
It ended that fast. I was soon alone in my room, like always. Worrying the soft pack of smokes in my hands for several minutes before going to bed.
Sascha wasn’t at breakfast the next morning.
“At least she’s home,” Mom said.
Father finished his coffee. “I have to go.” He gave me a quick hug before leaving.
Coffee. I bet they’d like some. I waited until Mom was in the other room before I drained the rest of the pot; the thermos once more my accomplice.
I was growing accustomed to only four hours of sleep a night. Though I did grab a solid thirty minutes during history class. My teacher’s droning about wars, cold and hot, cast weights to my eyelids. Who cared what the Germans did sixty years ago? Hell, didn’t the current president once run spies for half of Germany?
During lunch, I headed behind the gym. Some boys eyed me with suspicion, until I lit my own smoke. Then it was all darted glances and whispers. I stubbed it out and left when the first brave boy approached.
A trip to the shop on the way home. Chocolate, mints, some gum, whatever remained after dinner, and I would have my night’s rations. After the shop, I ducked into a side street for another smoke, lounging against a tree with my toxic treat. People threw scowls; shook their heads at the young girl so brazen. Nicotine tickled my blood, and my smile.
That night’s departure was no more difficult than before. I was soon on my bike, rattling toward the museum, and my friends.
The gun aimed ever upwards. I didn’t see the girls, but figured they would emerge soon. Tobacco came first.
“Are you alright?”
She raced about the gun, searching the ground in a frenzy.
“There’s nothing!” she shouted.
Beauty emerged. Dark smudges streaked her face. Her cap was missing and her hair was a tangled mess.
“H-hey guys,” I said, trying to resist the contagion of their chaos.
They looked and paused, staring at me for several seconds before speaking.
“What the hell?” Tobacco said. “You are crazy.” She raced to the other side of the gun.
Something had changed. They didn’t stop moving, like they were having some kind of breakdown. Isn’t this what our teachers warned of? These dangers of drugs? The madness they brought after addiction took hold?
“I brought some chocolate,” I said, producing the bars from my bag. “And I have―”
“Get out of here!” Beauty screamed. “How stupid can you be? Do you want to die? Run!”
“Look. I can help. I can take you guys somewhere. My parents will know what to do. Let’s just get out of here. If you guys get some sleep you’ll feel better.”
Tobacco stared while Beauty ran towards me. I took a step back. There was more than madness in her eyes.
“We don’t care about you. Just another stupid kid who’s going to die.” She slapped the chocolate from my hands, sending them vanishing into the dark.
“I brought those for you.”
I heard the slap, before I felt the sting.
“You stupid little girl. We don’t like you. We don’t want your treats. Go home and never come back.”
Tears welled, but not from her strike.
Crashing footsteps crunched the gravel. More crying, not my own, approached along with squeaky grunts of exertion. Braids came running, both arms full of dull metal cases the size of books. Moonlight shone from bits of brass inside.
“The others are gone,” she sobbed while spilling her burden to the ground. “They’re almost here.”
“They can’t all be gone,” Tobacco said. “I still hear some of them.”
“They’re dead. There were pieces. So many. I saw Lenka’s guts and brains and there was smoke and blood and Lenka’s jaw―”
“What are the others doing?” Beauty said.
Braids looked at me. “Did you bring more food?”
“What are they doing?” Beauty’s voice was shrill with panic.
Braids spoke slowly, her eyes closed in concentration. “They said to forget about the planes. Shoot the vehicles. Zero the guns and don’t stop.”
“You guys,” I said. “Just come with me.”
“Lower it!” Beauty shoved Braids toward the gun. She turned towards me. “You would have us run? Desert? You’re a coward and a traitor. I should kill you.” The slender blade she produced was a beast.
She matched my retreating steps until I broke, crying as I sprinted to my bike. I picked it up but Beauty had returned to the gun. Tobacco was cranking away on a wheel at the base. The needle barrel, always pointing to the stars, fell. In sluggish defiance of the frantic turning of the wheel that guided it, it sunk, until, after several seconds, it was pointed straight at the horizon. I pedaled home, the tears drying to salted crust on my cheeks.
My house loomed dark. No erratic television light glowed. It was empty. Empty but for Mama and Papa sleeping within. Empty like my life now without my new friends. Empty like school and studies would be. I had found friends, and they hadn’t wanted me.
I was stupid. Stupid to bring them candy and food. They wanted cool stuff. Drugs or whatever. Maybe if I found those then they would be my friends again. I went inside through the back door I’d left unlocked.
In my room, I flung their stupid smokes. Without shedding a single scrap of clothing, I fell into bed. Sleep came quick, my depression exhausting me.
I didn’t notice then, but my house key, with my name and address attached by a tag, was missing.
A troubled day’s dreams are magnified. I woke. Tossed. Slept. Woke again. All while the girls mocked and screamed at me. Always in front of the gun. Always pointing right at me.
I slept through my classes. Lifting my head at the teachers’ admonishments just to lower it the moment their backs were turned. After lunch, we had a visitor. Some woman I’d never seen whispered to the teacher before I was pointed out and called to the principal’s office. A bored looking police officer waited. Beside him was a familiar looking man with gray hair. There was one more man. Arms folded with a troubled gaze. Papa.
The policeman spoke first, dangling my house key. “Do you know where we found this?”
I shrugged, looking at his shoes.
“Some vandalism took place last night. Do you know anything about that?”
“Do you think it’s fun to damage other’s property?”
“You’re in a lot of trouble.”
“I didn’t do anything. It was the other girls.”
“What other girls?” the gray haired man said.
So what if I snitched? They’d chased me off. Yelled at me. It might even help them to get picked up. Maybe they would get better. That was my parents talking. I’d heard enough from Sascha to know what awaited them was a dirty cell, with dirtier people.
“I did it,” I said.
“Did what?” The cop again. “I haven’t said what happened.”
I closed my eyes. “I lowered the gun. I wanted to touch it. To turn its wheels. So I did. I cranked the wheel as much as it would go until it wouldn’t go any lower.” Braid’s panicked words returned to me. “I zeroed it.”
Things went faster then. I waited outside. The cop was the first to leave, but Papa and the other man remained with the principal for a long time.
I hated them. Stupid Tobacco with her hairy lip and fat nose. Stupid Braids with her little voice. Most of all, I hated Beauty. Her hair that, no matter how messily it crept from beneath her hat, always looked pretty. Her eyes, always big and catching the moonlight in the dark. They were all still running around having fun. Without me. Without wanting me. And I was taking the blame. I should have snitched.
The man exited next. He shut the door while Papa spoke with the principal.
“That gun isn’t a toy.”
“Who were the girls you mentioned?”
He nodded. Adding to my confusion, he said, “I’ll see you soon.” He left.
“Let’s go,” Papa said.
“I expect this from Sascha,” he said in the car. “Not from you.”
I stared at a crack splitting the dashboard of our old Lada 111, revealing dusty yellow foam beneath. I was tired of talking.
“What were you doing all the way at the museum? Meeting a boy?”
I almost laughed at that. Any smile died before it might have curled my lips. The trees were getting bigger along the road. The taller ones that grew on the outskirts of town. We weren’t going home. I didn’t want to go where he was taking me. I kept quiet. We arrived there much faster by car than it took me by bike. The gun pointed right at us.
I’d seen all this before. Only now, the museum was empty of disinterested kids. Now there were only the three of us.
The same dim rooms full of stale items I couldn’t force myself to care about no matter how much the gray haired man spoke. Dusty things behind smudged glass. Who cares what an old mess kit looked like? Bent forks and faded, empty tins of food. Who came to see such trash?
“This is what I wanted her to see,” the man said.
The room was much like the others. A few display cases. Large, black and white photos with literal walls of text beside them that I didn’t bother reading. Were we almost finished? Was my punishment complete?
The man leaned down to look me in the eye. “The gun outside,” he said. “The one you and your friends played with, it survived the battle intact. One of 37 others, which, along with their crews, didn’t survive. Did you know the entire regiment were teen girls barely out of high school?” He stood, looking at the faded photos.
“They fought alone, without infantry support. That means there were no soldiers to protect them while they crewed their weapons. They had the wrong kind of ammo. It was for puncturing the thin skin of planes, not the armor in which the enemy arrived. What they did have, they had precious little. Despite such odds, those women fought off the enemy for almost two days, inflicting heavy losses, until the very end.”
The man looked different. Sad, but displaying a thoughtfulness I generally reserved for my father alone.
“Myself and a colleague,” he said, his voice a little softer, “have speculated on how that gun outside survived. Perhaps―and we have nothing to substantiate this,―it was the last one. Overwhelmed by enemy riflemen, maybe its crew was the last. Firing right until the end, after all their comrades had been silenced.”
He shook his head. “As I said. It’s just a theory. So much information was lost, especially at the start of that long, terrible battle.” He looked at me again with a sternness I recognized from my teachers; not anger, but of correction. “So when you and your friends play with it, you are doing a disservice to the women who died beside it.”
Only now did I really see the photos. Despite the air conditioner’s failing efforts at defeating the summer heat, a chill crept up my skin leaving goose-pimples in its wake. My trembling hand sought Papa’s.
There was no mistaking the girl in one, large photo. Even in black and white, her skin was without flaw. She was looking up.
A relative? Her mother? I searched for possibilities that made sense, but there were none. A caption beneath read, ‘Natasha Larionova, 1077th AA Regiment. 1942.’
I searched for the others, scanning each photo until I found Tobacco; unmistakable in a group shot with her large nose and the smirk I’d seen so often. There was Braids as well. A portrait. No smile. Whether from fear or confusion, her face was blank. A scribbled name was in the corner. Olga was all I could discern of the script.
The world threatened to spin. The way it had when I’d first tasted their horrid cigarettes. My stomach lurched.
“Marina?” Papa said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ll never touch it again. I’ll never come back. I promise.”
I ran. I couldn’t look at them. Not Tobacco. Not Braids. And not Beauty. What they were, where they’d come from, I didn’t want to know. Their strange words, dismissed with ease as those caused by the drugs that adults used to scare kids in place of monsters, now carried a truth that I’d been too stupid to discern.
I fled past the exhibits, through the entrance into a wall of blinding, summer light.
And there it was. Baking in the sun. Its zeroed barrel pointing straight at the horizon. Right where they’d left it. I stepped close. It radiated heat like a furnace. Was that heat from the sun? Or from that other place? The girls’ place. Had their desperate firing sent back its warmth as well?
I heard little Papa said on the ride home. Once we arrived, I ran to my room. It had to be there. If not then I was crazy. I knocked things to the floor in my search. Ripped sheets from the bed. Nothing. How could any of this be? Jamming my hand between the bed and the wall I felt the floor in panic. Dust balls alone met my fingers. What if it wasn’t there? What did that mean?
Then I found it. No decoration. No health warning. Just wrinkled paper containing some smokes.
I never went back to the gun. Moved as far from The Volga as I could as soon as I was able. I didn’t want to see which way that barrel might be pointing. And if I’d seen them again, well, I knew they wouldn’t come with me. Wouldn’t leave their gun. They would stay, just as they had.
They were real. They were my friends. And though I gained only a few more in my life, a reality I later realized was no sin, I never had ones like those girls in my twelfth summer. For just a few nights. Beside an old gun in the dark.
Clint Spivey spent eight years as a meteorologist in Europe and Japan. After studying TESOL in grad school, he now teaches English as a foreign language at a Japanese university in Tokyo. His research focus is fluency development.
His work has appeared in The Lorelei Signal, Perihelion, the Pop Seagull Anthology, Love, Time, Space, Magic, and is upcoming in Fantasy Scroll.