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Steve Watkins

Camouflage

The minute they heard about the gunman, the principal got on the intercom and ordered the teachers to lock the doors, close the blinds, and hide the children under their desks. Maggie Moon, in kindergarten, told her dad later that that was how she got the gum in her hair--from under a desk, and it was still soft so some kid must have chewed it on the way to school and left it just that morning. The gunman pounded on the cafeteria door--as if anyone would open it, just like that, and let him in--but the cafeteria workers had barricaded themselves in with the long, low tables. The school-breakfast kids were shivering in the produce locker long after the pounding stopped. Everybody heard the police sirens--finally, thank God--but doors stayed bolted until the principal got back on the intercom and said it was OK, the gunman was gone, last seen tearing through the woods across the street from the school. Police speculated that he had a car waiting at the Park 'n' Shop half a mile away on Route 1. He was wearing camouflage, but nobody reported anything suspicious over there. Of course everybody knows now that people can be oblivious if it's not right in front of them, cracking away at their own door with the butt of a carbine.

Jeff Moon read all about it in the afternoon paper while he was still at work, and he left the office right away. He didn't want his daughter riding the bus home when school let out because there was no telling if the gunman might be hiding somewhere, waiting to ambush. The police didn't seem to have a clue. Jeff Moon only got as far as the Park 'n' Shop, though, and had to abandon his car because traffic was backed up so badly from the school. The newspaper had apparently triggered mass hysteria, and stalled parents were stabbing out their frustrations on their car horns. One was programmed to toot "Yellow Rose of Texas"--not what you'd expect in Virginia--and it looped over and over behind him as Jeff Moon hiked the shortcut up into the same dark woods the gunman had run through earlier. He prayed there was no police stake-out that might mistake him for the gunman, coming back for more.

At the principal's office he wedged into line behind a woman with long, wet hair dripping down onto her Virginia Is For Lovers sweatshirt, and he realized he could read the inscription because she had it on backward. She must have come straight from the shower, and she was crying.

"They should have called us," the woman said to someone further up in line. "They're required to notify us when this happens. They should have sent the children home."

"We'll go to the School Board," a voice said back. "We have Parents' Rights."

Jeff Moon wondered about that--about Parents' Rights--but he had never seen a list or anything and he had no idea what they might be. Probably parents didn't have rights. Probably they signed them away as absently as they signed their checks for the school lunches. He thought he should call his wife, Dusty, who was in therapy that afternoon with her agoraphobia group; there was no telling how she would react to news of the gunman, so maybe she should hear it from him. But then a rush of more parents through the school doors pushed everyone together, and the line dissolved into a surging mob that percolated toward the principal's office and jammed Jeff Moon so close to the woman with wet hair that he could smell her shampoo.

"Quiet please," the principal shouted, somewhere ahead. "Everybody quiet please," and Jeff thought about that old spelling device, "The principal is your pal." This principal, whose name was Marriott, kept shouting, "Quiet please. Everybody quiet please," but none of them listened. They demanded their children. They wanted to know which classroom. They were crazy for directions.

-----

"I'm glad you came and got me," Maggie Moon said fifteen minutes later as she and her dad picked their way past broken glass in the woods behind the Park 'n' Shop. They had to detour around an old mattress, green from age and exposure, that someone had dragged into the brush. Jeff Moon slapped a Thunderbird bottle with the side of his boot, then ducked a condom drooping from a gray branch.

"Were you scared?" he asked.

"No. I didn't want to ride the bus. The bus driver won't let us talk anymore. She yelled at that boy Michael."

Her dad asked if she knew what had happened at her school that morning, and Maggie said they had a drill, but when he asked if she knew why she said no.

"What do you do in a drill?" he asked.

"Get under your desk."

"And that's how you got the gum?"

Maggie Moon started to cry. "I don't like my school anymore."

"Why?"

"If you're bad you get your name on the board. And if you're bad again you get a check. And then you can't be a Good Apple at the end of the week. And there's gum under the desks. And the teacher yells at you when you have drills. Everybody yells at you."

Jeff wanted to say something to comfort her--"Maybe they were just upset about other things"--but the thought seized him that since the gunman had eluded the police he might still be in these woods, hidden under leaves, waiting in his camouflage for someone foolish and vulnerable and alone. He picked up Maggie and ran the rest of the way back to the Park 'n' Shop.

At home, Maggie Moon went to her room, and when her dad checked on her later she was playing with She-ra dolls. The Sheras were women warriors, a present from her mother, and they had swords and shields and a pink castle on hinges that opened up if she wanted to spread things out, but also closed into a handy storage box. Maggie pretended the She-ras were babies, and she lined them up under a blanket.

Jeff Moon called his office, Triangle Adjusters ("Service, Quality, Pride"). He hoped there wouldn't be any messages, but there were. A groundskeeper at Massaponax Mills had lost half his hand in a mower accident. Those four chemical workers from the chlorine spill last month in Domfries had found a quack ophthalmologist willing to testify to permanent vision damage. And Dusty was on a field trip with her agoraphobia group.

She came home an hour later with a gun. "I heard everything on the radio," she said before she sat down. "Your office told me you had already gone to pick her up."

"So you went to a gun store?"

"We voted. It was where we wanted to go." Jeff took a minute to think about this. Once, maybe a year ago, before she got help, Dusty crawled under the bed to retrieve one of Maggie's dolls, and she stayed there for an entire afternoon. When Jeff got home that day she was still there, but he found Maggie first--in the living room asleep under all the cushions on the couch--and he worried that what Dusty had might be hereditary. The therapy group's initial meetings had been conference phone calls because nobody would leave their homes, and they had only recently started taking short walks together from the office in this particular stage of their systematic desensitization. But now . . .

"A gun, Dusty? You're going to start an escort for the bus? Patrol the school? This doesn't make sense."

"I think it makes sense to me," Dusty said, not looking at him, but weighing the pistol in her hand, fingers open, offering it to her husband.

"But we believe in gun control."

"You do--" she started. "You believe that. I believe in life control."

Jeff said that sounded like something her therapist might teach them to say in the agoraphobia group. Dusty said so what if it was--the truth was the truth whether he believed it or not. He thought that sounded like a therapy line, too, but he didn't say anything. Dusty brushed her red hair from her face, using the crook of the arm that held the pistol, and Jeff plucked the gun from her hand.

"It's a Beretta," she said, patting her jeans pocket for Jeff didn't know what: a receipt, change, a cigarette. Then in a voice he hadn't heard before she told him it was a .25 caliber automatic, it held a seven-shop clip, and it had a nickel-plated barrel. The handle was walnut.

"Walnut," he repeated. The word didn't seem to belong.

"The salesman said it was a girl's gun. He said girls like the nickel plating because it's pretty, when really it's just cheaper."

Jeff asked, sarcastically, how she could resist a pitch like that.

"I decided I wanted a girl's gun. It fit perfectly in my hand--like a hair brush. Or like a hammer." Dusty took the gun back and pointed it at Jeff's feet. She said, "Bang," then she said, "Dance, Mister." It was supposed to be a joke, but she didn't smile in the right place. Jeff said he didn't think it was very funny.

Dusty went upstairs--to check on Maggie, she said--and Jeff wondered what they would talk about alone. He thought maybe they had a different language when he wasn't around, or when they assumed he wasn't around--something barely verbal, like signing--but he hadn't decided yet whether that was a liability or a bond.

The phone rang and it was his office calling about a cave-in in Stafford where Triple-D Construction was cutting foundation for an office building. They needed him to do the on-site. He heard a faint buzz in his head the whole time he was gone, as if something had clotted at the base of his skull and the noise emanated from there, and he couldn't shake the sensation that today was fated, that it was bad to be outside. He kept a look-out for snipers.

The world Jeff Moon knew was a more reasonable place than Dusty's, a more secure place. At work with his actuarial tables, he could see what was what--the cost of a hand, an eye, a foundation. Depending on the policy. He knew, too, that every action had its consequences. Two fender benders and you could bet on a rate hike, or, once you factored in the severity, cancellation. There was a connection here--though Jeff couldn't articulate it to himself very well--with a story he had read once when he was a kid, sitting in a doctor's waiting room. Maybe it was Life magazine, because he remembered pictures. The article was about a boy who lost his arm, torn clean off his shoulder when he hopped onto the side of a moving train but smacked into the edge of a tunnel. Luckily the arm stayed put in the sleeve of the boy's jacket, and doctors miraculously reattached it--the first operation of its kind. Everything worked perfectly. He could still play little league even. The story was awful--hop a train, lose an arm. Yet tidy--hold on, we can fix this.

Dusty saw things differently. Literally. When Jeff and Dusty first met she was painting miniature landscapes with brushes so fine he wouldn't touch them for fear they would break. She rarely used a magnifying glass, which was a standard tool for most miniaturists, because she said her eyes were that sharp--like Ted Williams, who could see the seams turn on a baseball coming at him ninety miles an hour from the pitcher's mound. She stopped painting when she got agoraphobia, or when she was diagnosed, but she still complained about seeing things that others didn't: certain lights and certain colors, particles in air, shapes in ice.

That night before he put Maggie to bed, Jeff Moon called his brother in Florida to tell him what had happened at the school. Duane interrupted immediately, though, and Jeff couldn't tell if he was trying to be funny or what, like one of the Marx brothers.

"You think you've got gunmen," Duane said. "We had one here at the elementary, he walked right in to the cafeteria and actually shot a guy, there where the kids were."

"Did he kill him?"

"Yeah. Shot him in the head."

"Did he know him?"

"Who?"

"Did the gunman know the guy he shot?"

"Oh, yeah," Duane said. "They were both maintenance workers."

"Ours was a stranger."

"Oh." Duane was finally sympathetic. "That's tough, that stranger danger."

When he got off the phone, Jeff saw that Dusty had taken her gun apart and lined up the pieces neatly on newspaper there on the living room floor. She had a white handkerchief, a box of Qtips, and a small jar of oil for cleaning the Beretta. He squatted behind her and touched her shoulders, intending to kiss the back of her head.

She jerked away.

"What?" she said sharply. "What? Don't sneak up like that." Jeff protested--he wasn't sneaking, he said; it was just affection--but she cut him off and said she was trying to develop new security patterns here and could he please try to be supportive.

She was right, of course. Whatever helped--making conference calls with therapy strangers, taking trips to the gun store, being assertive with greasy salesmen--the therapist said she should do. Last month Dusty asked if Jeff would let her tie him up in bed. They hadn't had much sex for awhile, and she said the issue was control. Jeff agreed, plus it sounded kinky--something he'd probably always wanted to try but would never have suggested himself. She used cloth strips to hold his wrists and ankles to the corners of the bed, then she turned out the lights and made the room so dark that he couldn't see her shape. She did some things she had never done before, and he made noises to let her know he liked it OK, even though it did hurt a little, but they didn't talk at all. Afterward she left him by himself on the bed for fifteen minutes while she took a shower, and the funny part was he liked that too--being tied up alone, helpless but not really.

He thought maybe what he wanted tonight was to tie her up, but he didn't say, and he left her in the living room with the gun so he could put Maggie to bed upstairs.

But Maggie didn't want to go to bed. She wanted a drink of water, then a different night gown. Then she wanted a Bobo story. Jeff tried to talk her out of it--he was tired, he said; it was late; he couldn't think of a Bobo story--but she reminded him that he had promised earlier.

He killed the overhead, felt his way back to her in the dark before his eyes had time to adjust, pulled a quilt over both of them on Maggie's narrow bed. Hall light cut faint geometric shapes in the room, and the She-ra dolls, lined against the wall like sentries, cast slant shadows that bled together in the corner.

Maggie inched in tight against her dad. Jeff thought he could hear Dusty downstairs, cleaning her gun, and he imagined her lost in it the way she once lost herself in the minutiae of her painting. He pictured her surrounded by tiny pins and springs and rods and plates, and the pile growing ominously, like the fishes and the loaves.

"Tell it, Daddy," Maggie said. She pinched softly and held the fleshy inside part of his arm. He touched her hair and began the story--about Bobo and a tiny girl from outer space. Bobo was a giant gorilla, strong, soft-headed, funny when Jeff could pull it off. The tiny girl was lost on Earth in her space ship. One thing happened--some dogs chased her up a tree--then another thing happened--a big wind blew her into the river--before Bobo rescued her and they became friends. The tiny girl missed her family, though, and wanted to go back to her own planet, so Bobo climbed a high mountain and hurled her little ship back into outer space in a perfect trajectory home.

Maggie waited for more, but when it didn't come, she started to cry. She said the story made her sad. Also it was too short, and she wouldn't go to sleep until he told her another.

"No more stories," Jeff said. "It's late. It's go-to-sleep time."

She burrowed into the quilt away from him, and he strained to hear Dusty in the living room. He smelled smoke from a cigarette, and wondered if he should go downstairs so they could talk about this gun. She knew the statistics, damn it--that you're more likely to shoot a family member than an intruder. He would buy her an attack dog if she thought she needed protection. A rottweiler. A pit bull.

He eased out of the bed, patted the lump of covers where Maggie's head should have been, and told her to stay. She growled back to let him know she wasn't crying now, she was just mad, and he held the rail tightly all the way downstairs as if he was pulling himself underwater.

Dusty was sitting cross-legged on the floor in the middle of the living room with the reassembled Beretta. She cradled it with both hands, like a book, eyes fixed on the gun as if she were reading it. She held a cigarette, too, wedged like an accessory between two knuckles. Jeff waited, thinking at any minute she would move the cigarette to her lips and let it hang there while she lifted the gun police-style, squinted over the barrel, pinched the trigger.

But nothing happened. She sat. She read the gun. The cigarette burned down.

He must have made a noise then, standing at the bottom of the stairs. Hearing him, seeing him, she blushed and hid the pistol under her leg. "It's not loaded," she said. "I haven't loaded it yet. I might not--"

She would have said more but he couldn't stay. She even called out--"Jeffrey, wait"--but he was already swimming back to the stairs, back to Maggie's room, back to her bed, holding his breath until his lungs burned. The buzzing sound that had haunted him earlier started up again from the base of his skull, and he tried to brace himself against it, and against whatever might come next.

"Please another story?" Maggie's muffled voice found an air shaft out of the quilt. She could have been underwater too, speaking in bubbles. When he didn't answer right away she peeked up from the covers.

"Please another?"

Jeff Moon thought hard, but nothing came. He knew the Bobo story had been short; he knew he'd probably told it, or versions of it, a dozen times in the past. He wanted to apologize, explain to Maggie that he didn't have the imagination it took to spin these things off the way some parents did, and he had to borrow from the detritus of his own childhood--shards from kid books, slices from thirty-five-cent matinees--to give them any life at all.

He closed then opened his eyes, and only then realized how dark the room had gotten. The hall light wasn't on anymore--either it had burned out or Dusty had turned it off from downstairs--and there were no shadows on the wall for definition. The She-ra dolls seemed shrunken, smaller, as if hiding from their posts as sentries.

"Please Daddy?" Maggie said, but he didn't know any other stories. He was sure he heard Dusty now in the living room--locking the door, closing the blinds, moving furniture. Doing all she could to make them safe for this one night. He wondered how late it was, and he said Tomorrow, Maggie--he would tell her the rest tomorrow, there was too much to tell her tonight, and if she rolled over on her stomach he would rub her back for awhile. He would draw pictures on her back. "You need to go to sleep," he said, afraid she never would. "Please go to sleep," he whispered, and he blindfolded her with one of his hands.

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