The boy could tell that his dad was serious. The old man’s eyes didn’t blink. That’s how they always did when he talked serious. He wasn’t mad. Just serious.
“Rule number one. Don’t point this at anyone. Ever. It’s not a toy.”
“Rule number two. Know what you’re shooting at. If you’re not sure, don’t shoot. Understand?”
The old man reached out his hand and handed the rifle to the boy. The boy walked with the rifle pointed down at the ground. He knelt down behind the tree, took a deep breath and one last look at the red can the old man had sat on the tree stump several feet away.
When the boy put his face up against the scope, the target transformed. It was no longer a red can. The old man whispered in his ear.
“There’s the bear, son. It’s him or you. Focus on your target. Breathe like I taught you and, when you’re ready, put your finger on the trigger and pull.”
This time, the old man’s voice was more reassuring than serious. He still meant business but what he said lifted the boy’s spirit. The boy’s imagination had now taken control of his nerves.
The boy tried his best to look through one eye. Winking still didn’t come easy for him. Not as easy as it did for his dad. The old man promised him that it would come in time.
“Can you put your hand over my eye?”
The old man gently placed his hand over the boy’s left eye. The hand was rough and worn from years of work. Somehow, it still comforted the boy.
Finally, the bear that used to be a red can came into sight through the scope. The boy’s heart raced. He slowed it down with two deep breaths.
As the last little bit of that second breath made its way out of the boy’s mouth, he slowly moved his finger down to the trigger and pulled.
The shot penetrated the silence. It wasn’t very loud but it was loud enough for the boy. There was a better sound. It was the sound of the tiny BB hitting that red can that was playing the part of a bear.
The boy couldn’t keep from smiling. He tried to stop. He knew that it was only a can that he hit and he didn’t want to get too excited over such a small accomplishment. But he couldn’t help it. The smile wouldn’t go away.
When he turned around, his eyes immediately caught the old man’s eyes. Those eyes that were once wide opened were now shut. The old man’s calloused hand was wiping moisture away from them. And the smile on the old man’s face was just as big as the one on the boy’s. The boy still hadn’t figured out why grown ups sometimes cry when they are happy. He didn’t say anything. They both just kept smiling.
Twenty years had passed since that day in the woods. A lot had changed. Cancer had taken the old man. The boy was now a man. It was hard for the man to say it but the old man was better off. He wouldn’t like the world that he left behind.
Each day brought more violence. Twenty years ago, the names of strangers were read on the news during reports of another murder miles away in the big city. Now, those reports were more frequent. The locations were closer. And the names were more familiar.
Last week, Mrs. Davis was shot in town.
This morning there was word that Bill Gleason had been shot. He lived two doors down.
The man carried a gun with him everyday. It was his job. To protect and to serve. Even on his days off, he still carried a gun. As bad as things had gotten, he still never had to pull his weapon on anything other than a deer or a turkey. He wanted desperately to keep it that way. But he was no fool. He knew the odds. The time would come soon.
Finally, on the evening of September the 10th, it did.
When the shots rang out, everything at the high school football game stopped. The players stopped. The fans were too shocked to move, for a few seconds at least. Even the people who were just there to socialize had stopped. It was like someone had hit the pause button. And then the fast forward button.
People were running everywhere trying to get away from the gunman. No one knew where he was. In the chaos, some ran right too him. It was the last thing they ever did. In a matter of seconds, nine people were down. And the gunman was doing his best to make that number higher.
Sirens could be heard in the background but the man knew that they were still several minutes away. He reached under his jacket for his gun. He was off duty that night. But he never was truly off duty. He didn’t pull his gun yet. Simply remembering it was there did him a lot of good.
It was easy to find the gunman. The sounds of his gun and the sight of people frantically running from the home concession stand gave him away. The man ran against the crowd. His right hand was resting on his gun that was still holstered under his jacket. His left hand was clearing people out of the way.
Finally, the crowd was behind him. The gunman was in front of him with his back turned, looking for another victim. The man drew his weapon.
In an instant, his mind went back to those days with the old man and the BB gun. He remembered the rules just like the old man was telling them to him again.
“Rule number one. Don’t point this at anyone. Rule number two. Know what you’re shooting at.”
The man knew what he was about to shoot at. He had no other choice but to point his weapon. He was sure that the old man would understand.
When the gunman turned around, his gun was pointed at the ground. The man had him in his sights and walked toward him. How he wished that his target was a red can or some imaginary bear that was born in the old man’s mind. But it wasn’t. It was a kid.
This kid wasn’t much older than the man was when he was learning how to shoot. It was like he was looking in a mirror at a younger version of himself. He felt sorry for the gunman. Although he didn’t know him, the man felt like the two had a lot in common. The only difference was the voices in their head.
The man could still hear the voice of the old man telling him rules and affirmations and stories about imaginary bears.
No one would ever be able to agree on what voices were in the gunman’s head. They just knew that they weren’t good.
The sirens were drawing closer.
The man yelled at the gunman. As he yelled, his eyes didn’t blink, just like the old man’s used to do.
The gunman’s eyes didn’t blink either. They were glassed over, ruled by that day’s drug combination.
“Police! Drop your weapon! Now!”
The gunman raised his weapon.
A shot rang out. It was somehow louder than the approaching sirens and the screams of the crowd.
A few minutes later, three news helicopters were flying overhead and dozens of reporters were on the scene. As they carried on with their live shots, they tried their best to mask their excitement by pretending to be concerned.
They all said the same thing.
They talked about how the guns needed to go. They discussed what the police should have done better. They brought up the background of the gunman and the off duty officer who bravely confronted him.
The man watched it all on his television that night. He couldn’t turn away from it. One reporter called him by three different names before finally getting it right. It was almost comical.
The man stayed calm throughout the whole ordeal. It was that same voice. The old man’s voice. The same voice that calmed him down all of those years ago was still replaying through his head.
The man finally turned the television off and tried to fall asleep. Finally, left alone with his thoughts, he started to grow afraid. Afraid of what could have happened. And he wished. He wished that he could hear the old man’s voice again in person. He wished that those calloused hands could cover his eyes again, this time to wipe away the tears.
And, more than anything, he wished that the gunman, and everyone else for that matter, had grown up like he did with an old man who cared about him. Maybe then the voices in their heads would have been different.
Maybe everything would have been different.