Wednesday, February 28, 2018

It Knows What I Want

For more than a year, I'd muttered about it under my breath every single time I went on Facebook.

There, my feed, bearing the reflections and ruminations of all of my social-media friends and acquaintances.

But it wasn't chronological.  It was carefully sorted and prepared for me by the machine-mind, as algorithms showed me what they'd determined I most wanted to see.

So every single time I went on Facebook, I'd change the settings back to chronological ordering, which made me grumble in that first-world-problem sort of way.  Why can't you just let me look at the [blessed] thing in the way that I choose?  If every single time I use your service I have to change a setting, shouldn't that clue you in to THAT BEING THE SETTING I WANT IN A RANTY ALL CAPS WAY?  Grumble grumble grumble.

And then, about two weeks ago, right before I started time-delimiting my social media interaction for Lent, that changed all on its own.

I'm not sure why.  I'd gotten into a conversation on Facebook with two friends from college about how impossible it was to change, and then, lo and behold, it was changed.

The shift happened because my Chromebook browser started defaulting not to, but to, which automatically sorts your feed chronologically.  I didn't request this.  It just...happened.   Which was itself kind of weird, in that Google-becoming-sentient sort of way.  I suppose I'd selected that option enough that the browser simply learned it as my choice.  One AI learning system provided its own solution to my interface with another AI learning system.

What was weirder still: after a week or two, I realized something unsettling.  For all of my whimpering and kvetching about Facebook's AI selecting my feed? 

I actually prefer the algorithm.  

Because the machine-generated list I thought I despised is just much, much more interesting.

I mean, y'all are great,  The posts featured by the algorithm contain the most active conversations between friends about significant events.

They're discernably more relevant and more engaging than simple chronology.  I feel more likely to chime in, to spend time.  That's a qualitative and subjective thing, sure...but social exchange is fundamentally qualitative.  Whatever it's doing seems to be working.  It didn't at first, not at all.  My "Top Stories" used to feel off, like, c'mon, I don't care about this. 

Now?  Now it seems to have learned.  Improved.  It seems to know what I want.

Which is...great?


Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Ride Along

[start of audio track]  This thing on? 

That’s the...yeah.  The red light.  Cool.  Good deal.

So.  Wanta know the best thing ‘bout me?  My name.  ‘Cause it’s a goddamn verb now.

And it ain’t ‘cause I’m a smith or a taylor or some such thing where you take the name a what you do.  The verb don’t come from nobody but me.

I’m a verb man!  A man of action.  An action man, who does things.  Hell, just look.  It’s what I’m doing right now.  Turpin’.  I’m out turpin’, ‘cause I’m the freakin’ Richard Lee Turping, and I am what I do.

That’s why y’all wanted this vid, right?  All that trouble gettin’ this cam to me, just to get to know me.

The man, the verb, the legend.  Heh.

Sure, there’s other words folks use asides from turpin’.  Robbery.  Grand theft.  Hell, that guy on the news the other day done call me a terrorist, and it ain’t the first time somebody’s called me that, neither. 

Terrorist.  Blessed Lord Jesus, I ain’t never terrorized nobody.  Terror.  Jesus.  I mean, sure, I scared more than a coupla few people, ‘till they know it’s me doin’ it, and then they know ain’t nothin’ bad gonna happen to ‘em lessen they get stupid. 

Heck, oncet people know you ain’t gonna hurt ‘em, it makes the job so much easier.  You think you’re gonna get killed, you’re gonna fight, I mean, I would.  But if you know it ain’t personal, and you know just to like sit tight and it’ll be OK?  You sit real nice like and let the good polite Mr. Turping go about his turpin’.

And yeah, there’ve been...well.  I sure am sorry about them.  But they shoulda knowed better.

Because every damn body knows who I am.  Richard Lee Freakin’ Turping.

My granddaddy, one I was named after?  Richard Lee Turping weren’t a turper.  Hell, there weren’t no turpers back then.   He was a trucker, long-haul, did that his whole life.  Worked for a buncha different big companies, then had his own rig for a while, contracted out with a coupla locals for shorter runs. Did this fuel run outta a Supercenter stop upstate, mostly, up to the depot and back.  It was this big ol’ Kenworth that was his very own. 

Man.  Grandaddy was like, I don’t know.  I remember I was like maybe four, and he weren’t drivin’ much no more, but he’d come rollin’ up in that thing and it was like he was drivin’ a goddamn alien mothership.  It’d be all lit up like--

[chime, repeating]

Hold up.  Just gotta check--nah.  Ain’t nothin’ yet.

Anyways, he’d come rollin’ up, and that ol’ Kenworth’d be lit up like Christmas mornin’.  And Mama’d holler at me ‘cause I’d go runnin’ out ta meet him, and she’s like sure I’m just gonna up and get squashed.  “Careful, Ricky, Ricky look out!” 

Like I was ever that dumb.  But you know how mamas can get.

So there it’d be, American steel rising up to heaven, diesel snortin’, paint blacker than the night sky above, chrome all polished, and them lights, oh man, all them lights like stars.  And the door’d open up, and there’d be Grandaddy with that smile shinin’ ‘bove his big white beard, and he’d say, “Hey down there,” and damn. 

It was like seein’ Moses comin’ down from the mountain, only he’s driving the damn mountain. 

And he’d say, “Hey Ricky, you want we should go for a ride,” and, hell, ‘course I did, I always did, so I’d climb way on up there and off we’d go.  And it was like, Lord, it was like he was some greek god, like, oh man, what was his name, the sun god, up there in his chariot, and there I was ridin’ high ‘bove every last thing.

And he’d tell me stories, ‘bout what he seen out on the road, ‘bout what it meant to be a man. 

Grandaddy was a proud man, a workin’ man.  And drivin’ that sweet ol’ rig weren’t easy, neither.  All them gears, Lord, that took skills.  But not just skills, it was like, you had to know who you was.   “You gotta have your head on straight, boy, you ever want to drive like your Grandaddy and your Daddy,” he’d say.  “It ain’t an easy life.  Whole buncha ways Satan gonna try to lead you astray.  Truckin’ man gotta know who he is, keep his soul right with the Lord and his body tight.”  ‘Cause he knew that…

[crackle, audible chirp, muted voice]

Hold up.  Bobby, what you got?

[muted voice]

How many?  Just the one?

[muted voice, crackle]

Say what?  You serious?  Here?  Who the hell drives that out this way at this time a night?

[muted voice, laughter]

I know, right?  Candy from a baby. Man, temptin’.  All by their lonesome, huh?

[muted voice]

I hear ya.  Totally.  But there’s gonna be bigger fish.  We wait.  You down with that, Dave?  Tyrone?

[muted voices]

Alright, y’all.  We good, brothers.  Hang tight.  It’ll happen.  Stay frosty.

So anyways, what was I goin’ on about?  Shoot.  Um.  Oh, right. 

Weren’t just that Grandaddy had skills.  It was like he got to use ‘em.  ‘Cause what’s the pointa bein’ alive, if like you cain’t feel like the Good Lord has a use for you?

That’s what killed my Daddy, sure as if it’d up and shot him.  Daddy drove, too, loved it like his Daddy did.  He weren’t a big personality like Granddaddy, more quiet-like, but he loved my Mama and treated her good.  Never cheated, never raised a hand to her, never raised his voice, not even when things got bad between the two a them.  Not even when.  Yeah.

Didn’t even leave a goddamn note.  Not like we didn’t know why.

‘Cause he always figured he’d live like Grandaddy did.  Work honest and work hard.  Drive ‘till he could afford to retire.  Maybe get his own rig, though Daddy more liked fishin’ when he had the time.  Get himself a boat, go out on the lake, just sit there on the still water nice and quiet.  He’d a liked that.

Well that didn’t work out.  We all know how that rolled.  Jesus.

Them goddamn corp’rat ticks took that all away.  Oh, sure, we all know what they said.  It’s the future, they said.  It’s progress, they said. 

Lyin’ thievin’ sonsabitches.  It was just them, takin’ what was ours for themselves.  Parasites.

And it all happened so damn fast.  Yeah, there was talk.  But you don’t believe it till it’s there, you know?  It was like, one day Daddy was drivin’, then they called ‘em all in, told ‘em they were downsizin’.  New rigs, freakin’ ‘bots, drove themselves, didn’t need no driver.

But they was hirin’ “monitors.”  Sit in a cab in a big convoy of ‘bots, watch screens all day long.  No pedal.  No hands on the wheel.  Hell, you don’t even see the road. 

Just a damn screen and a damn keyboard.  Somethin’ goes wrong, you press a button, another robot comes, takes over, fixes it.  No skill.  No pride.  Just a goddamn babysitter for robots.

And ten jobs?  Nah.  Now there’s one job.  That pays half the pay.  Half the damn pay, while those bastards who made ‘em get their billions by taking it from us.

It weren’t like Daddy didn’t try to find work, neither.  He woulda driven for anybody, anywhere, but all the companies was buying these new robot rigs, gotta stay competitive, can’t get undercut.  And like every last trucker out there was scramblin’, ten to every job.  Millions and millions of us.

And Daddy tried.  Lord knows he tried.

But hell.  Quiet man, keeps to himself, don’t like to impose on nobody?  You know, you got to know people in this world you want to get ahead, and Daddy just...well.  Didn’t know the right people.  Didn’t brownnose.  Couldn’t.  Weren’t who he was.

So, yeah.  And what else was he going to do?  So he tried.  Six months?  A year?  How long before you see the writin’ on the wall?  Before all that rejection jes wears down your soul?

I was, what, seventeen, then?  And all a sudden Daddy was home all the time, just sitting there on that ol’ sofa.  There in the mornin’ when I left.  There in the evenin’ when I got back. Sometimes the tee vee was on.  Sometimes not.  Then he was drinking, just like drinking all the damn time.  Weren’t a mean drunk, hell, even when Mama was freakin’ out about money and medical bills and cryin’, Daddy didn’t get mean.  Just kinda folded on into hisself, like one a them black holes up in space.

And yeah.  I was the one that found him.  Came home from school, and…

[Silence.  Rustling.  More silence.]

Like, look.  There goes that sonofabitch.  That’s the one Bobby was talkin’ about. 

Look at him go. 

Shoot, I’m of a mind now to take him down just for the principle of the damn thing.  Middle of the Tennessee night, big fancy Mercedes runnin’ alone through the Smokies, Jesus, that thing’s gotta be doin’ one ten.  And that’s, what, two hundred thou?  Hell.  If it’s got the security augs and the uparmor and the run-flats, more like four.   Maybe five.

You just know there’s Nashville money in the back, doin’ business with business, rich as all hell, couldn’t give two craps ‘bout the rest of us.  So damn tempting.  I mean, runnin’ ‘em down is the easy part.  It’s a pain in the butt to crack the accounts, and even if you leave ‘em standing by the road in the middle of Tennessee nowhere it’s only like an hour or less afore those damn computers shut everything down.  But Bobby’s real good at….heh.

Did I say Bobby?  Did I say that before?  Guess I did.  Well.  We’re usin’ code names.  Hear that?  Code names.  Heh.  Jesus.

‘Cept for me.  I want y’all should know who I am.  I am Richard. Lee. Turping.  Tee You Are Pee Aye En Gee. 

And yeah, sure, maybe I am a thief.  Maybe that’s what my name means these days.  But I’m a man, Lord Jesus help me, and God made a man so’s he can do something with his life.  It’s them coders and fat cats and elite sonsabitches who’s the real thieves, takin’ away the right the rest of us got to live in this world like there’s some reason God put us here.  I don’t want your damn handouts.  I want to live as an honest hardworkin’ man, and if the only way I can do that is go turpin’ all your stuff, hell.  That’s what I’ll do.

And yeah, I get how weird that is, when the only honest work is stealin’.  I ain’t stupid.  But I didn’t make this ass-backwards mess of a new world.  Never wanted it.  I only ever--

[crackle, chime, muffled voice]

Bobby, what you got?

[crackle, muffled voice]

How many?

[muffled voice]

Seven of ‘em?  Damn.  Nice and fat.  Sweet.  How many drones?

[muffled voice, crackle]

Yeah, got it, totally doable.  And just the one mountie?

[crackle, muffled voice]

Cool.  Mats are go.  EMPs are charged and prepped.  Dave, Tyrone, you gettin’ this? 

[muffled voice, crackle, muffled voice]

All right.  Fire it on up!  Let’s do this, boys.

[rumble, sounds of vibration]

Hoo.  So here’s where the fun starts, and I just know y’all are dyin’ to see me work, but, yeah.  Don’t wanna be giving away any trade secrets, now, do I? 

‘Cause I’m the kinda man who takes his job serious.  Man’s got to have some pride in what he does.

Catch y’all on the flip side. 


Um.  Yeah.  Um.  Which button turns this thing off again?

[vibration, sound of engine, end of audio track]

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Snake

It's a short, simple poem, one that has surfaced repeatedly over the last few years of our now endless political campaign. 

It's carted out by our president, usually as part of his xenophobic efforts to capitalize on the attitudes of his right-wing audiences against immigrants.

"The Snake," it's called.

A person finds a frozen snake, and brings it into their house to revive it.  It wakes, and bites them, poisoning them.  Because it's a snake, and that's what they do.

The spin being applied to its current telling, of course, is that foreigners and people who aren't loyal to the president?  They're the snakes.  Don't trust 'em or be nice to 'em or care for them or welcome them in, 'cause they'll bite you.  Because they're bad.

That's what is intended.  It is always read by the POTUS as part of a crass nativist attack on immigrants, which is how his audiences hear it.  Because that's how he always frames it, telling them what to believe so they cannot consider the tale themselves.  "Immigration," he'll say, before starting in, making sure you have no space to encounter the meaning on your own.

The poem itself, which he probably read as a meme on #Twitter, is just a reworking of a reworking.  "The Snake" has ancient provenance as a Wisdom teaching.  It's thousands of years old, part of the fables of Aesop, short teaching tales meant to illuminate great truths that define a moral life.

As a writer myself, and one who follows the teachings of a master storyteller, I know there's no better way to learn or teach.

But there's a catch.  Moral storytelling requires imagination.  It forces the reader out of themselves, and into the story.  As with the parables of my Teacher, you have to get that right, or else you'll completely miss the point.  And if you miss the point, you put yourself in a position of moral hazard.

As a form of teaching Wisdom, that "missing of the point" is paradoxically why you teach using storytelling.  Parables are a trap set for fools, who can hear the stories...or tell them...and imagine that the same story is not meant for them.

The purpose of the story of the snake...or "The Snake and the Man," or the "Snake and the Farmer," or the "Snake and the Maid?"  It has been laid out and reiterated over the centuries of telling and retelling.  The best of those retellings do not articulate the moral, because parabolic teaching means you're required to figure that out for yourself.

What Aesop wrote was not is an anti-immigrant screed.  Nor can it legitimately ever be read as it is being read now, warped into a cold-hearted inversion of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  As Aesop was a Thracian/Macedonian who lived as  a foreign-born slave in the city-state of Samos, that seems obvious.  Assuming you know Aesop wrote it.  And know that some friendly droog-bot on #twitter didn't just come up with the story.

The terse little teaching is a warning to the naive, to those who imagine that a harmful soul will not do them harm simply because they care for it and bring it into their home.  Your embrace of a sociopath, says Aesop, will not prevent them from harming you.

But in sharing the story with children and those of childish mind over the last several thousand years, sometimes the point of The Snake needed to be spelled out, just as Jesus often had to spell out his meaning to his more lunk-headed disciples.   For those who might have missed it, here's the point:

"Learn from my fate not to pity a scoundrel," or so says the dying farmer in the 1919 edition of "Aesop for Children."

"There are some men like snakes," says the seventeenth century L'Estrange version.  "'tis natural for them to be doing mischief."

And plainer still, from 1887's "Baby's Own Aesop," the point of the story is this:

"Beware how you entertain traitors."

The irony of this story's place in contemporary conservative politics could not be more obvious.

Thursday, February 22, 2018


The word plays through my consciousness, even though it seems far from the lips of the culture.


It's an old word, archaic and faintly fusty.  It describes a reality that some might say just cannot be.  But it feels right, feels like the place that we are as a society.

Things feel like...rot.  A little off, like the sharpness in the expired milk that curdles on the surface of your coffee.  Like decay, with which decadence shares a root.

It is not limited to one part of our society, but permeates it, through and through.

On the right, madness, the willful derangement of a movement that has lost all connection with reality.  Science?  Piffle.  Sound economics?  Hah.  It doesn't matter if a particular approach has failed time and time again.  You just keep on doubling down, because surely, surely it'll work next time.  It has to, because it is what you believe to be true, reality be damned.  It must trickle down!  It axiomatically must!

Instead of the real, there is the stirring froth of ideological rigidity, now wed to the gibbering glazed eye certainty of trollery and conspiracism, delivered more often than not without attention to spelling, grammar, or sanity.  It has ceased to be the stolid conservatism of the learned, cautious traditionalist, and become instead the self-annihilating "conservatism" of the addict who refuses to let go of their poison.

In the "middle," a mass of humanity that drably trudges through lives rendered increasingly meaningless by the permeating pressures of self-indulgence and anxiety.  That great anxious center tranquilizes itself with churning aimless busyness, and/or actual tranquilizers.  And if internet traffic volume is any indication, there's also a whole bunch of porn in there for the aimless masses, too, up to and including the sort of thing that might leave Caligula a little nauseated.  That and violent entertainment, lots and lots of the ultraviolence, to the point where shootings and stabbings, cities being destroyed and planets exploding?  Just par for the course.  Good for a giggle, even.

On the left?  Hah.  There lies fractally fragmented academic irrelevance, a churn of "movements" devoted more to deconstructing anything they touch than to laying the groundwork for any deeper social progress.  The paradoxically bougie-left is #twitter-flighty, pathologically hyper-judgmental, addled by pop-culture, and more than slightly neurotic.  It is also completely and willfully devoid of purpose.  "Purpose," after all, is a white colonialist construct, a manifestation of patriarchal, cisheterosexual hegemony.  And "truth?"  Truth on the left has been defined down into the functional oblivion of granular subjectivity.  It means nothing.  It goes nowhere.

And in all of this, every facet of our culture is absorbed by an increasing obsession with the fluttering irrelevance of the moment, personified by our impulsive, shallow, radiantly unwise and #blusterous choice for president.

Decadence just seems too accurate.

Decadent cultures can find their way back to a place of integrity and progress, as they have over the millennia of human history.

But if history is any guide, that's going to be a very hard path.

Monday, February 19, 2018

A Good Guy With A Gun

I struggled with posting this.

After the shootings in Miami (remember that one?) I found I could not preach on the violence, could not interpret through the moral lens of scripture.  It was Sunday School Sunday, and, dammit, I wasn't going to take that away from the kids just because our world is a bloody horrible mess.  Sometimes, we are prophets.  Sometimes, we are a sanctuary. That day, my little community was a sanctuary, a place of quiet and calm and joy amidst the horror.

But that slaughter demanded a response, one that came in the form of a horror story.  It's a story that continues to have relevance, because there's a saying out there that is fundamentally invalid.

"Nothing stops a bad guy with a gun like a good guy with a gun."

This is not true.  It wasn't true in Dallas, when those law enforcement officers were murdered in the line of duty.  There were twenty open-carry activists there at the demonstration in Dallas, and not a one of them did anything other than get in the way of police and make things harder.

It wasn't true back when an acquaintance of my son took his own life with his father's gun.  "Guns just make everything worse," my son said, as he went to join a circle of friends who are devastated by the sudden, pointless loss.

It wasn't true in Vegas.  Or whatever shooting has most recently occurred.

It has never been true.  It is a comforting lie, told by a people who repeat it to themselves over and over again.  It is one of those sayings that traps a people in a bad place.

This is not to say I don't know good people who own guns.  I do.  They are excellent human beings.  They hunt for food, which is infinitely more respectful of creatures than eating industrially produced meat.  They care about protecting their families, as do I.  I respect them.  My knowing them does not allow me to stereotype gun owners or to simplify a complex reality.

But I weary of this endless stream of death and suffering, and from that weary anger, I wrote this story.  It is a work of horror, one that speaks to the heart of an American lie.  My wife did not want to read it, not once I told her the premise.  A dear friend read it, and said it was the ugliest story of mine that he's ever read.  He's right.

So, much as I hate the whole idea of trigger warnings, consider this a strangely meta trigger warning.  If you are a victim of gun violence, proceed with caution.  If you're a gun enthusiast, it'd probably be better to just not read it at all.

It is a horrible story.

A Good Guy With A Gun

The weight of it, the perfect weight of it, nestled against his chest as he got out of the truck.  Polymer and steel wrapped in the soft leather of his well worn concealed-carry holster, light but not too light, good stopping power, the Walther invisible against the largeness of Don’s frame.

It was the right gun, just the right gun, a gun that said he knew guns.  

It was the gun Jesus told him to carry for when the time came.  

Because it was the gun he had with him that day.

It had been a Saturday, cool Tennessee winter day.  He’d driven Dawn to the mall, where else, Dawn and Joelle and Sarah, laughing and fluttering and endlessly Snapchatting.  The three of them, BFFs, now all fifteen together on Dawn’s fifteenth birthday, giggling and shimmering with energy, he trying not to feel too humiliated by the KPop she’d birthday-bullied him into playing.  He told her he’d have to crank Vince Gill for six hours straight to make the truck stereo work right again, and she rolled her eyes at him.

Carla’d been really surprisingly cool about Dawn being with him for her birthday.  “You’re her father, Don.  And she asked me if it could be you, ‘cause she knew she’s sposed to be with me this weekend.  I’ll do her sixteenth.”  Almost felt like it used to be, for a moment there.

“Are you seriously on your phones?  Talking to Each Other?”  Don rumbled, the big pretend gruff Dad rumble from the front of the crew cab.  “You’re right next to each other!”

His phone hummed in its dash mount, and there was the text from her, her pretty little freckled face, tongue sticking out from between her beautiful teeth, braces off just last week.  “I loves you daddy ;0P”

They’d parked, a good distance out, mall was crowded today.  Don found a spot, and parked the truck, then it was the little giggling herd moving towards the entrance, playing and skipping, young and alive, filled with the hormonal sparkle of young women coming into their bloom.

She was so pretty, so pretty.  Don watched the boys in the mall, saw them seeing her, a mix of pride and fierce protectiveness rising in him.  Damn right she was a good looking girl.  Don’t you even think about doing more than looking.

Dad tagged along, maintaining a discreet distance, just close enough that the wad of twenties in his jacket pocket was conveniently accessible when it was time for Custard King and Aunt Annies.

The Walther, where it always was, right by the wad of twenties, nestled by his heart.  Because you never knew.  Better to have a gun and not need it.

“Daddy, we’re going into Lollipops to look at skirts!”  He’d smiled.  “Yeah.  You do that.”  He pointed, heavy hands in a big thick tatted workingman’s arm.  “I’ll be right over here, in the sporting goods store.  You just let me know when you’re ready...and just remember, the movie’s in an hour.”

She rolled her eyes, but then blew him a kiss.

He was looking at lures.  At a little boo-jig, for next time out with Bill in that sweet bass boat of his.  

That was what he had been looking at, when he heard a scream, and then the first shot.  

It was a 12 gauge.  Knew it by the tone, by the timbre.  There was less than a heartbeat, and there was another.  Another.  Another.  And screaming, more of it, and shouting, a rush of movement in the great hallway of the mall.  

His hand, straight to the Walther, and he moved towards the front of the store, as others fell back.  Doom dahwm doom, came the roar, seven shots now, a mix of buck and slugs.  Dahwm dahwm doom, ten shots now, coming closer.  

Ten shots, no pause to reload.  Semiauto.  Not a hunting shotgun, not pump action like the Remington 870 Tactical Blackhawk Spec Ops II he kept by the bedside, couldn’t be.

Dahwm dawhm Dawhm, three more, thirteen now, rapid succession, semiauto, no pumping.  

He was at the front of the store now, Walther out, safety off, crouching low on straining old knees, finger safe.  Dahwn dahwm Doom dahwm dawm.  Five more, no slowing, Jesus, eighteen out with no slowing.

The crowd, wild rushing mortal terror.  A woman fell hard two yards away, in a spray of scalp and hair and bone.  The shooter, behind them, somewhere, too many people, too many to see clearly through the screaming chaos, no clean shot.

He didn’t have a shot.

Movement, cutting across the crowd, coming towards him, running.  Dawn, face white with fear, pushing through them, running to her Daddy, to Daddy where it was safe, to Daddy so strong.  His eyes flitted, adrenaline sharp, between her and the onrushing chaos.

He didn’t have a shot.

Doom doom dom Dawhm.  Twenty two.

Two others down, shadows.  Don saw them but did not see them fall, his eyes on his daughter, running.   His breath, drawn quick.  “Down,” he was going to say, “get down.”  The words were right there.  He was going to say them, and she would get down and be safe.

Dom.  Twenty three.

Dawn’s eyes suddenly wide as her body bent from the impact, ribcage shattering as the slug entered, a look less of pain than surprise.  Her eyes stayed on him as she fell, her arms barely stopping her fall.

Poppoppoppop, from nearby, the cop unloading his Glock at the shooter.

Don was up and moving, everything too bright, a great rushing hiss in his ears, moving like his knees weren’t old, the Walther clattering from his hand, and he took his baby girl up in his arms, brushed the hair from her ashen face.

Her mouth worked, trying to draw breath into collapsed lungs, a glottal bloody futility.  

Daddeee, she mouthed without breath.  Daddeee, silent from the Nonee Cream Color Proper Pink of her lips and her beautiful teeth stained dark with arterial blood.

And her green eyes went wide, and all the light went away.

There was screaming, but he could hardly hear it.  People said things.  He responded.  

Then there was the ambulance ride, slow, sirens off.

Carla, crying, shaking, incoherent, clinging to the pretty little body.  Doug was with her.  

Then cops.  Questions from cops, about him, about the Walther, which was returned to him.

The shooter was 27, divorced, restraining order, wife worked at the mall, first one to die.  The shooter had only one gun on him.  It was a Vepr 12, they said.  An imported Molot, Russian-manufacture, 12 gauge semi-auto tactical.  AT $695, a real bargain in close quarters personal defense.

He was running a twenty five round drum magazine, an SGM Surefire, made with pride in the USA.   The shooter had four other magazines on him, SGR Tactical Industries, 10 rounds each.  The shooter had each magazine carefully loaded with a randomized mix of thirty five Winchester Super-X Hollow Point Rifled Slugs and thirty shells of Remington Double Aught Buck.  

But only nineteen dead, including the shooter, and sixteen injured.  Didn’t even set a record.  

There was a funeral.  He was there.

He did not go to work.  He sat, sat in the double wide, and did not sleep.  He watched the coverage, for a day.  For a few more days, he read about it.  He read familiar words, watched the same dance, saw his friends making the arguments that he had made when his mind could still think.  

About freedom.  About the Second Amendment, and tyranny, and rights.  

Over and over again, in all the places on the net where he spent time, saying that if those shoppers had been armed, the shooter would have been taken down.  

“If more of the sheeple had been concealed carrying, he’d have been taken down in a heartbeat,” said libertywolf1776.

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” said @flagpatriot.  

“It’s only because we’ve let the socialists and the nannies keep law abiding citizens unarmed that this even happened,” said freedom4ever44.   

“What stops a bad guy with a gun? A good guy with a gun,” commented eaglefire1975.

A good guy with a gun.  A good guy with a gun.  

The words, in his head, over and over and over.

He felt the ghost of the Walther’s industry-leading grip setting just so in his hand, perfectly weighted, nice clean groupings at 25 yards.  And he saw the screaming chaos around him, the fog of human panic, no clean shot through women and children and the innocent, no shot he could take, so much confusion.

And he saw Dawn fall.  And the light leave her eyes.  

He did not sleep.  Weeks.  Sometimes, there would be darkness, and time would pass.  Maybe that was sleep.  He did not know.  Sometimes he ate, cold things brought by people from the church.

He did not remember anything.  Just the six words on endless repeat, over and over.

Until one night he lay down, and it was not darkness, and the words fell silent.  Don slept, and he had a dream.  He was standing in the mall.  It was all quiet.  Then Jesus came to him as an angel, walking down the empty mall towards him.  It did not look like Jesus, at least not like Don remembered Jesus looking from church.  The angel wore a crown of razor wire, with a robe stained and crusted with blood, teeth sharp and black, and eyes like the dark embers of a dying fire.  

But the angel said it was Jesus, and that felt right to Don because it just did.

And Jesus talked to Don.   He talked to Don even when he was awake.  Jesus told him things he was going to do. Don would have to make some things.  He would have to say some things.   Jesus was going to help him.  

So Don went back to work, after talking to Bill who let him come back.  It was funny, because he didn’t feel anything, but the angel helped him make it seem like he did.

The Jesus angel helped him order all the things he used make the Box.  It was hard to make, so many wires and timers and connections.  But Jesus told him just how to do it by taking him to a special page on the internet that had instructions.

Now Don was standing in the access road, under the shade of the trees, feeling the weight of the Walther, just right.   He adjusted his tie, because he was wearing a suit to talk to an important person.  He had driven up from Tennessee to meet him, hours and hours.  Terrence D’Ononfrio, Director for Legislative Outreach.  

Mr. D’Onofrio was important, and he was in the big building, which stood tall and steel-bright by the side of the highway.   

The National Firearms Federation, the headquarters, the place where they made the magazines that Don got every month and where he sent his annual membership payment.  They printed the sticker he had on his truck.  They printed the card he carried in his wallet.

Don had called Mr. D’Onofrio.  Jesus had told him what to say.   About Dawn.  About “situational awareness.”  About proper handling and training in a crisis.  Things like that, so that he could come in and meet and talk.

“I surely do appreciate your reaching out to us, Mr. Lanier,” Mr. D'Onofrio had said over the phone.  “Stories like yours help build up some spine in Congress.  As the father of that poor girl, Lord, your voice matters in keeping our Second Amendment rights from being watered down.  If just three or four more people had been carrying that day, Lord, I just wish it was so.  Maybe your story can help keep our freedoms secure.  I am, truly, so sorry for your loss.”

Don thought about what he had said on the phone, as he pulled the duffel bag from the passenger seat of the truck.  He did not feel a loss.  He did not feel anything.  The bag strained against his arm.  It was heavy, very heavy, because the Box was in it.  And some other things, too.  He closed the door.  It went thunk, because it was a Ford, and a good truck.  He patted it, absently.

He walked across the parking lot, to the big shiny glass entrance.  There were security guards there, on the other side.  The doors opened, smooth and automatic, and he walked up to the front desk.

“Can I help you?”  It was a big guy, with a shiny badge.

Don said all the things he had been told to say.  “I’m here to see Terry D’Ononfrio.  Don Lanier.  I’ve got a three thirty appointment.”  He opened his jacket, showed the Walther.

“Do I need to, like, check this or anything?”  

The guard laughed.  “What, are you kidding?  I do need to check in your bag, though.”  

“Sure,” Don said.  He wasn’t worried.  Jesus told him this would be fine.  He unzipped the duffel, and the desk guard looked into it.  There was a big Box of what looked like bulk nine millimeter ammo, and a toolkit.

“I’m planning on shooting a bit at the range after the meeting.  It’s open till six thirty, right?”

“Yeah.”  The guard nodded, smiling.  “You’ll need to go up to the seventh floor.  Legislative affairs will be the suite to your right.  Have a good one.  Hope you have a good meeting.”

“Thanks,” Don replied, zipping up the bag.  It was good he’d used an ammo container when he built the Box.  He had wondered why, but now he knew.

“You got stairs I can use?”  Don knew the answer, but he asked because he had to ask.  “I’m,” and he patted his belly.  “...tryin’ to lose a couple of pounds.”  The guard pointed him to where he already knew the stairs were.

Don stopped at the second floor.  He was not going to go see Mr. D’Onofrio.  That was not what Jesus wanted him to do.

He needed to be on the second floor.  That was where he needed to go in the building.  Right in the middle of the building, on a lower floor.  That was where the Box needed to be.

But first, he walked around.   To the floor exits for each of the stairways.  

A generous application of epoxy, quick sealing, super strength, in each of the mechanisms on the lowest two floors.  The only exits left?  Into the second floor.  That is where everyone would go.

The doors opened, and Don stepped out.  He turned to the left, which is the way he knew he had to go from looking at the building floorplan on the membership site.  He walked past cubicles where people were busily working.  He walked past doors with names on them.  It was all very nice and fancy.  He walked around a corner, to a place where they were doing some construction.  Those offices and conference rooms were not used.

He took off his jacket.  Underneath, his white dress shirt.  Clean.  Pressed.  Bright.  


That was where he set down his bag.  He unzipped it.  He took out the tool kit.  In it, there was an awl.  It was very, very sharp.  Don had sharpened it himself.   He held the awl in his right hand.  

Then he opened up the Box.  There was the timer.  He set it.  Thirty seconds.

He took fifteen steps back.  Counting every one.  He took a deep breath.

Then he shouted into the empty hallway, a loud angry voice that everyone would hear.  “Put it down!  Put it down!  Now!  Put the safety back on, put it down!”  Seven seconds.

He extended his hand, the awl poised above his heart, turned inward.  “I need you to set that gun down now!  NOW!  Put it down!”  Four seconds.  The sound of movement, a distance behind behind him.

Two.  One.

The timer in the Box sent a signal to the firing mechanism.

There was a loud noise, then another, then another, as the Box began firing the blanks.  

25 Rounds, P.A.K., Walther 9MM blanks, utterly realistic.  Three out.  Twenty two to go.

Don stabbed inward with the awl.  It sank deep into the meat of his left shoulder.  It should have hurt a great deal, but he didn’t feel anything anymore.  The shirt stained with his blood.

He dropped the awl, and drew his pistol.  He fell back, stumbling on purpose, blood streaming down his arm, firing one-handed, down the empty hallway.  Pop.  Pop pop pop.  Four shots, carefully counted, Hornady Critical Defense, 117 grain hollowpoint, ideal close quarters rounds tearing thick chunks from the drywall.  One shot remaining.  One left in the magazine.  It was much louder, here in the closed space.

From behind him, a man, young, glasses and suit, his face pale.  In his hand, a Beretta PX4, tiny and compact, perfectly discreet 9MM.

“Jesus, what the hell is…”

Don said what the angel told him to say.  “Just here...for an...interview.  This middle-aged guy in the  Standing there, pistol out.  I asked where…”

Three more shots, bang bang bang, and both Don and the stranger flinched.

“He started shooting, Jesus, I tried to…”

The man moved forward, took position.  “You’ve been hit.  Get security.  I’ll stay here.”

Don fell back.

Another man, moving forward, taller, balding, cautious.  Glock 19, aimed down, ideal concealed carry tool, trigger safe.  “What’s going on?”

“My first day.  This guy, young, glasses, Jesus, I...I...can’t remember his name, we’re meeting, he starts saying crazy things.  Pulls a Beretta on me.  I tried to talk him down, then made a break for it.  I’m..I’m hit.”

The man’s face grew pale.  “Right.”

There were three more shots, and the sound of shouting.  Then two more.  Then another voice, shouting.  More shots.

The sound of more movement, and an alarm now.  A woman, short, brunette, determined lips tight, fear and ferocity mingled in her eyes.  Her Sig Sauer P938 sitting in her hand, dark, compact and purposeful.

To her, he said, “Big guy.  Balding.  Jesus.  Just went crazy.  Yelling at me, I got off a couple of shots, but I’m hit.”

More shots, more shouting.

A man, grim and stocky, buzz cut, Korth SuperSport chambered in 357, serious piece of kit.

To him, he said, “Christ, I can’t believe she shot me.   I can’t believe she shot me.”

Even more shouting, women’s voices, men’s voices, more shots, different sounds, large and small rounds.

He passed others.  The words he shared, all the words given by the angel Jesus with his black teeth and his dark and fiery eyes.  He shared them with every person he passed.  Every one, armed and frightened, groups of two or three.  Every one, seeing the gun in his hand, the blood on his shoulder.

“I didn’t get a good look at him.  Big gun.  Grazed me.”

“Jesus, I thought he was a cop, new guard, don’t know his name, just started shooting.”

“There’s a couple of them.  Terrorists.  Working together, infiltrators.  They tell you to stand down, and...and….Christ, they’re just shooting everybody.”

He went to the stairs, entered.  Behind him, more shooting, bursts and rounds and screaming.  The fire alarm sounding, roaring, so that he had to shout to the people he passed coming down.

“They’ve blocked off the stairs, doors are jammed on the first floor.  Only way out is through the second floor, watch yourself, at least three shooters.”

He heard the hard brass laugh of the Jesus angel in his ear.

He pushed into the entrance to the sixth floor.  There was no-one there.  Outside, sirens, many sirens, and a crackle of distant pops and snaps and bangs.  And screams.  They went on and on.

Ron leaned against the wall, sliding down.

He was so tired.  So tired right now, so tired.  But he couldn’t sleep.  It was so loud.  So loud. Jesus told him, then, how he could sleep.  How he could finally rest.

One round.  There was one round left.  He checked, made sure it was chambered.  In the distance, from below, the sound of gunfire kept him awake.  

The sound of so many good guys with guns.  So many good guys with guns.  Good guys with guns.

The words began to cycle again in his head, and he knew he had to make them go away.

The taste of the Walther’s muzzle, steel and plastic and sulfur, thick and heavy on his tongue.

He closed his eyes, and there was razor wire Jesus waiting, eyes afire, great black mouth stretching to a yawning oblivion.

Don took his shot.