Last week I felt like the furthest thing from Easter. It was the flu. I had been perfectly alright during the day and then I got this terrible headache, the kind where it feels as if someone is slowly adding calibration weights to the top of your brain. That night I woke up around four in the morning and I ran to the bathroom and threw up blood. I called my mother and she was there by 10AM. I couldn’t keep down water but I was so thirsty and dehydrated so she gave me ice chips. I started hallucinating. I thought I was standing in this guy’s shed as he polished his revolver. He was polishing it for me so he could kill me. I had asked him to because I was in so much pain. The sun outlined his hunching, working body.
My mother was standing in the doorway of my bathroom with a cup of ice chips in her hand when I asked her, “Why must he have such a bad aim?” She asked me what I was talking about and I said, “Why can’t he just shoot me right in the middle of my forehead? Why does he keep missing?” She shifted her weight and told me to have another ice chip. I told her that he better not miss this time.
* * *
I’ve only had a gun pointed at me once. It happened a few years ago near the end of July. I had gone to the beach that morning. It was an especially nice day because while the sun did mercilessly beat into my head and shoulders, the air was light and the breeze was hasty. There was no other human in sight at this beach. I stood at the shore as the wind licked at my face. The water rushed past my ankles and reminded me of the cut on my left heel. I started walking. Taking steps farther into the Atlantic felt innate, like a child seeing his mother and instinctively running toward her without telling his legs to move. There’s this beautiful gravitational pull so the mind doesn’t have to tell the body anything. I was fully clothed as I descended into the water but hadn’t noticed.
My jean shorts and t-shirt were still sticking to my sandy and wet body when I got home. As I stood in my kitchen, my boyfriend at the time, Matt, and my younger brother, Daniel, made smoothies with too many tablespoons of chia seeds. They wanted to feel energized. Matt gulped down his and then decided that we should go pet the sea of cows in the field nearby. Daniel and I considered the idea as we drank our smoothies and then nodded. Matt had a way of making trouble seem liberating. And we just wanted to feel their gruff coats. It was such an innocent desire.
* * *
When I was fourteen, I held a gun everyday for a week. It was at a summer camp in Leesburg, Florida, a city in the middle of the state where Floridians actually have Southern accents. A fourth of the land is covered in ameba-infested lakes and this camp rested alongside a nice, deep one so I avoided water sports. I signed up for riflery because arts & crafts was full. It was July and there was no awning or tent so the sun would cook the gun like an egg on concrete. It would smell like a piece of plywood full of jagged nails burning in a bonfire. I would hesitantly lift up the scorched gun and gently hold it just an inch above my shoulder so it wouldn’t touch my skin. I always thought about how the boys standing to my right and left could easily aim their guns at me, even the one who looked like a blue-eyed peasant. He could shoot my lights out. Just like that.
* * *
Matt, Daniel, and I walked the mile from my house to the rusted, twisted fence that wrapped around the field. It was the only thing keeping the cows in and us out. As we approached the fence, I realized it was a lot less menacing than I had always imagined. It’s funny how you’ll see something for as long as you can remember and just assume it’s one way and then you finally get really close to it and find out it’s completely different and all you can muster is, “Oh.” Oh was right. And so we lazily arched our backs and angled our legs as we climbed through. I sighed at how effortless it actually was. I felt very human.
As we looked out at the field—really, it resembled a continent—we saw hundreds of brown cows with white spots and white cows with black spots and ones that were a combination of everything scattered across the patchy, partly dead grass. Some chased after their calves and others gnawed on the dead grass. They looked so harmless and we wanted them to trust us. Matt glanced at us, grinning, and then started running toward them. We followed him like children chasing their mother as she holds pastel plastic eggs in both hands on Easter.
Daniel and I gave our legs a rest and let Matt run ahead of us. He didn’t need us, anyway. The two of us languidly made our way to a cluster of cows. Right as our hands were about to touch their smorgasbord coats, a red truck peeked out from behind a hill. All three of our bodies froze like those beautiful Greek sculptures in the Louvre. Except we didn’t feel beautiful. We felt dirty, like our moms just caught us rewinding the sex scene in Titanic. A man in a torn faded brown shirt and bleached, frayed jeans got out and didn’t speak a word, but he had a gun. I’ll never forget the sound of his door closing. It was so final, that slam, similar to the sound of a coffin shutting too roughly because the person sealing it got weak in the arms. The man looked our way and steadied his rifle with us, his targets, in the center. We ran as far as we could. I don’t think I had ever run that fast before and I don’t know if I ever will. My legs felt as if they were leaping out of their sockets and my chest got cold and scratchy but I didn’t want to die on that partly-dead-grass-continent. I heard several fires, so I ran and ignored the sockets and the cold.
* * *
They say that when someone points a gun at you, you should look them in the eyes to remind them of your humanity. To remind them. Why do we often forget one another’s humanity? If someone is driving ten miles under the speed limit in front of me, they are no longer human. They are a vehicle—a Toyota Camry, a Nissan Armada, a Mitsubishi Eclipse. And I think they’re terrible and should have their license revoked and their fish from Petco die and the milk in their fridge expire but they don’t realize it until after taking that bite of cereal. Why would a vehicle deserve any better after making me late? I guess that’s why it’s always important to really look. How funny it is that we sometimes forget that—being human and all.
What’s that feeling called when you realize you have the power to determine another man’s existence? I’m not really sure but I think you probably feel omnipotent when it occurs. Is that what it feels like when you point a gun at another man? Maybe he has something you want—money, a girl, a guy, a diploma, a car, whatever—and you want to make sure it’s yours or maybe you don’t even want it but you sure as hell don’t want him to have it. If you’re miserable or threatened then he should feel those things too. But that all seems too dark for omnipotent. Then what is it? What is it called when you see a person’s face in the reflection of your newly polished semi-auto pistol and you recognize that if your pointer finger bends toward you then that person may never bend theirs again?
* * *
As the three of us leapt down the state road and curved into my neighborhood, all I could hear were our heavy breathes. It felt like being in one of those tunnels at an aquarium, where your inhales and exhales flood the space and time slows down but also speeds up and you wonder which one it’ll be when you look at the clock. Daniel and I stopped for a second to look over our shoulders. Was the red truck coming for us? Matt yelled, “Don’t. Don’t look back!” So we ran faster and I entered that tunnel again. When my house finally came into view, its greyish blue shutters, white wraparound porch, and dormer windows looked so innocent—so unsuspecting—that if we muttered what just happened, it would blush and tell us to stop making up lies and have a cup of tea. I prayed that it would have mercy on our reckless ways. Families are merciful, right? Does that include everyone, even cousins and uncles and aunts?
* * *
As a child, I always wondered why my uncle didn’t wear a wedding band even though he was married. I would stare at his left hand every time he was near me. I used to assume he was constantly fighting with my aunt and that this was his sign of defiance toward her. One day I decided to ask him. He told me that one evening he was walking around the city of Bogota in Colombia. He was going through this narrow street filled with deep red and blue houses that loomed over the sidewalk. A couple of men ran up and pointed a gun at him and demanded that he give them his wallet, watch, and ring. He gave them everything so they put their guns away and left. Maybe giving people what they want is the secret to not getting shot.
* * *
When we got inside the house the three if us collapsed onto the living room floor and took sighs that were so big they could swallow every lake in the county. Then we looked at one another and smiles emerged on our faces because we felt like we cheated death. We did, didn’t we? The three of us crawled over to the bay windows that oversee the front porch and yard. We poked our heads up, wondering if that red truck would be meandering through the street any minute. Our heavy breaths filled the little space. I started wondering what was running through that raggedy man’s head. Yeah, we trespassed and went near his cows, but why did he want to kill us for it? Or, maybe he didn’t even want to kill us, but then why did he point his gun at us? And if he hadn’t missed, how would that have made him feel? If he had witnessed our insides soaking into the partly dead grass and maybe even onto a few cows’ fur coats, what would he have thought—of himself? If he had killed me, I hope I would have at least remembered to look him in the eyes as I died so he would realize my humanity.
Matt turned to me and started laughing. He was drenched—no, still swimming—in sweat. He had run the fastest of us all. He had the most to lose because he was the most selfish.
He poked my rib and said, “Would you have missed me if I had gotten shot?”
I tilted my head to the side. “If you died first,” I said. “I would have missed you getting to see me die.”
“Because then you wouldn’t be able to feel bad.”
He turned away because he knew I was taking some of that blame toward the raggedy man with the gun and placing it on him.
* * *
I think I realized what that feeling is when you understand that you can control another man’s existence. It isn’t omnipotent. It’s sovereignty in the murkiest of ways. Like the world is your domain and you’ll piss in Lake Superior and vomit in Joseph Canyon if you’d please. And if a man makes you mad, you’ll shoot him. Can you imagine pushing a gun into someone’s mouth as they look at you very calmly because they remember that people with guns are frantic and need to be reminded of humanity? Yet you pull the trigger anyway. Imagine shooting through their membrane, destroying every idea, moment of elation, the first time they felt love inside of them.
Oh, I really hope you never have to hold a gun, and if you do I hope it’s to save yourself from the man who’s shoving a gun into your mouth. But only use it to scare him. After all, he’s a human, too.
Grace Ann Leadbeater is an American-Canadian photographer and writer who resides on the East Coast. She received her B.F.A in Photography from the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, GA. While attending, she completed her senior thesis in Lacoste, France.