The man who pit this roof against rain, his best friend and owner of the final store in town, the woman who pits seed against element to feed me all my life, our humdrum hay baler, two others I didn’t know and I sit in a circle in Shopkeeper’s empty store. These are our Friday nights now after the litany of systems failures. “Supply chain-issues,” Papa mumbles when it comes up. “Just the economy cycling again, actually,” Shopkeeper grumbles. “No one believes us about the mass injuries,” the two guests basically whisper.
Though these little fights still spark after months of this gathering, we needed something to get our mind off of who among us might secretly be moving freely about the countryside during the day or going about their shopping at what few markets were left without incident, the adults say. Something to get the heart pounding like the good old days. I don’t know if this is what they’re talking about, but I vaguely remember taking one of the horses out for a ride with friends whenever we wanted, but those could have been dreams. I never knew how we found each other after the long days in the fields; we just did for forever until we didn’t. I haven’t been around long enough to really know, but this seems different than just a bad spot in the economy. But I’m still young enough for the adults to expect me to listen to them without incident. So I do. Outwardly.
Humdrum holds the Nagant pointed at the center of our circle. None of us have been drinking and none of us are frightened—at least I’m not. Dread makes me feel like I have no mouth and the rice between my teeth in the back causes me to fidget. Mama glares at me but is otherwise happy. We are all excited like usual. Yes, I nod: excited.
Humdrum pushes the muzzle against his template and spins the barrel. Its clicking hits my nerves directly and I keep startling. The sharpness in Mama’s glare is gone, but she glances at me more than once, which thumps on my heart. I smile at her. This is affection. I keep my smile pulled hard across my face until she looks away.
Per Papa’s instructions, Humdrum waits for the clicking to stop then counts to three with the rest of us who do so under our breaths. There is the sound of the pin in an empty chamber and we all exhale in unison. Humdrum stands on wobbly legs, passes the gun handle first to Papa and locks eyes with each of us as he raises the muzzle to his temple, pushes and spins the barrel. He drops his gaze to the center of the circle as the clicking slows so he does not see my jolting around to the rhythm, such as there is, of the barrel like I’m on Magic, our unbroken Clydesdale.
We all exhale when Papa stands to hand off the Nagant to Shopkeeper. They bow in the center of our circle. Shopkeeper gets the barrel spinning before he puts the muzzle to his head. The clicking stops and his jaw bulges while we wait. Shopkeeper pulls the trigger and lives.
The two guests I don’t know take their turns and I’m surprised I still cannot relax. Do I care about these strangers like an unwounded human who can still feel their feelings might?
Both guests survive. As the members of our circle pass the gun around to Mama, she spreads the wrinkles out of her apron that her grandmother sewed for her as a wedding gift. Without changing her expression, she spins the barrel. As it slows, she spins it again and raises it to her head.
I involuntarily turn my gaze to anything else.
The expectancy and enjoyment on everyone else’s faces turns my stomach to heavy oil, which I must remove from my body immediately. I stand so fast I knock over my chair and make it to the outhouse just in time.
When I resume my post in this circle, the gun is on my chair, the barrel pointing at Mama, who, if she ever expressed her feelings at all, would be cackling with delight.
I trace the barrel with my fingertips. Anticipation ambushes me and I barely suppress a deranged chuckle. Heeheehee, what’s going to happen? I smile as I raise the Nagant to my temple and crank the barrel. I’m not a chuckler. My eyes close. The muzzle is slightly warm; it trembles against my head until the barrel stops. One, two, three, whee!
I open my eyes. Mama’s face is unchanged, Shopkeeper’s and Humdrum’s are bright, the guests’ are unreadable, but Papa is febrile. Furious, eyes cracked with light from the far window.
“Okay,” Papa says finally. He stands and paces the room. He stops at the whittled display table passed down through generations to Shopkeeper and, leering at it, stretches out his arm. After dragging something across the table’s aging surface, Papa turns to us and presents a bullet pinched longways between his pointer and thumb. “Who was assigned to load the damn gun?”