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
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."
"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
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
Jeff asked, sarcastically, how she could resist a pitch like
"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
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?"
"Did the gunman know the guy he shot?"
"Oh, yeah," Duane said. "They were both maintenance
"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
"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
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
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
But nothing happened. She sat. She read the gun. The cigarette
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.
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
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.