GUTSHOT by Thomas Barnes
by Thomas Barnes
The lucky streak ran out when the air rifle went off.
I felt the little ragged hole in my shirt. It didn’t feel like anything at all. Too small to be significant. Johnny let the air rifle swing to his side, the ends of his teeth glittering. Kali fell off the stump she was sitting on. They were all waiting for me to do something. I heard blood in my ears. Maybe they’d thought I’d keel over and die, I’m thinking.
So I did. I pressed my beer to my belly and squeezed. Beer frothed up in a fountain as I writhed in the dirt.
Even Johnny smiled a little.
“Don’t scare me like that,” Kali said, righting the stump.
I threw the crushed can into the black river. The wind grabbed the can and carried it far past the jutting, broken pylons.
I still felt like I could beat up a thunderstorm. Me, Kali, and Johnny were celebrating under the highway. Doug was there too, but that goes without saying—he’d follow Johnny into hell, further. We were living it up because my great aunt died. She left me a pile of money. I was sure it was a typo in the will. See, my name was only one letter away from Rocko, her toy poodle.
The can landed in the black water without a sound or a ripple. Johnny cocked the rifle. There was a sharp metal sound as the bullet struck the can where it floated.
“You know I didn’t mean to,” Johnny said, holding out the rifle. “If it’ll make you feel better, you can put one in me.”
I looked down the business end of the barrel. Then I pushed it toward the dirt. When I lifted up my shirt, there was a small red hole under my last rib.
“You ought to go to the hospital,” Kali said.
“He’s fine,” Johnny said. Kali and Johnny were back together, which meant they were always arguing.
“Yeah, fine. See?” Doug said, tossing me another can. He acted like he was always licking the third rail, but it was the medicine he stole from his night-shift at the hospice.
“Shut up, Doug,” Johnny said.
I missed the beer and it rolled behind a twisted old oak tree. An oil truck snorkeled over the bridge, moving toward the squat white tanks on the opposite bank, the dead trees bound to leaning telephone poles.
When I leaned for the beer, a spike of pain arced across my side. Kali was already there. Her touch was icy, electric. I felt a cold hook curl around the base of my spine.
“I can’t feel it anywhere,” Kali said. “I think he needs to see a doctor.”
I felt the wound myself, and my hand came away with a tiny ruby of blood. I felt acid in my throat.
“I can’t afford it,” I said. “I’m fine.”
“I could sneak you into the hospice,” Doug said. “That is, if you don’t think you’re gonna make it. It’s garbage for the living. But pretty swanky if you’re not.”
“What about your aunt? I thought you were loaded now,” Kali asked.
I looked away.
“I’m not set for life. I think it’ll cover dog surgery. Not people surgery though,” I said.
Mostly I didn’t want to leave. Under the overpass, I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be. We were talking about everything, all the old jokes and stories. I wanted this afternoon to last forever. We hadn’t had an afternoon like this since high school. Over us and everything, the light was gold and red and pink and purple. There was a massive cloud in the sky, hanging like a city over the towers of the real city below. A ship, toy-sized, swayed near the river mouth, and I wondered who was on it, where they were going.
But my side twanged. I wasn’t sure if the ache was growing because I was thinking on it, or if there was actually something wrong inside me. It seemed insane, like a bad dream’s backward logic, that something could pierce me, change me, that the outside world could get in. I looked at the red film of blood between my fingers. It didn’t, couldn’t, seem real.
“Just give me another, I don’t know, two ccs of PBR and a fistful of purples,” I said, trying to sound clinical.
Doug snapped to action. Drugs were something he could latch onto.
“This is the last of them,” Doug said, upending the amber bottle. “It’s not much.”
A truck shattered across the bridge, rattling the overpass’s steel plates and startling a phalanx of pigeons. Johnny took aim. I gasped as pain wracked my gut. I sat down hard. I felt like I’d eaten something rotten.
“I’m taking you to the hospital,” Kali said. “You’re white as a ghost.”
A pigeon pirouetted and began to fall toward the river.
“Fuck,” I breathed as Kali’s old car sprang over a pothole.
I pressed against my stomach, but couldn’t staunch the ache blossoming somewhere deep inside me. I tried not to think about it.
On the overpass, the city stabbed upward like something clawed out of the ground. Kali gripped the wheel tight, threading the car though gaps between eighteen-wheelers. We rushed past low houses and graffitied billboards. The blare of car horns was constant. Each crack in the road tied another knot in my stomach.
Doug was playing with the dials, but there was only static.
“This is boring,” he said, as traffic tightened. Ahead was a sea of red lights. “Tell me something, Johnny.”
Johnny collected stories how some people collected little pieces of glass from the beach.
“This guy I knew was worried that every day the sun was getting closer,” Johnny said.
“Did you meet him at Walpole State?” Doug asked.
Johnny nodded. Kali shook her head, but I could see her grinning in the rearview. Johnny liked to say he spent time on the inside, that he had his second degree from the state penitentiary. But he’d done less than a day for vandalizing his old boss’s car.
“Every day he took a measurement of the sky. If you listened to him, the sun was inching closer a few miles a day. He tried to warn people, but nobody listened. He stared at it every day, daring it to come closer. And each day it did. He ended up holding up the Sunglass Hut, trying to clean them out so he could face down the sun.”
“It needs a real ending. It’s not a story if you don’t learn something,” Kali said, finding space between space and advancing through traffic.
She was always so in the world. She moved through it like water, making it seem easy.
“I wasn’t finished,” Johnny said quietly. “Now that he’s in prison, the state fixed his eyes, but they got the connections wrong. So everything he sees is its opposite.”
Doug laughed and bounced in his seat until Kali told him to quit it or we’d rock off the highway. My heart was jackhammering in my throat. I took a deep breath and it came out in a rattle.
“The point is that sometimes you don’t even know what to worry about, and what you were worried about wasn’t what you should have been worrying about all along,” Johnny said.
“A simpler way to say that is sometimes things work themselves out,” Kali said.
“Yeah, like a hedgehog,” Doug said.
“What the fuck, Doug?” Kali said.
“Like when you get stung by a hedgehog. The needle will work all the way through you and come out, no problem. You just gotta leave it alone,” Doug said. “I saw it on the Discovery channel.”
A silence fell over the car, broken only by muted car horns. The road stretched and curved over the river, toward the fist of glass buildings that was the downtown. It was broken in a few places by old stone clock towers. The sun was going down, lighting the windows of the city a brilliant orange. The taillights of the cars on the overpass ran together like a watercolor. All the colors made the world seem aflame. I wiped a tear from my eyes. I had a feeling like I was landing in a plane after a long journey, landing in a place I knew but couldn’t remember.
Kali’s eyes filled the mirror. “Does it still hurt?”
“No,” I said, but it did. It hadn’t hurt until I started thinking about it again.
Deflated people draped themselves over the wooden chairs and tables of the waiting room. A man, thin as paper, muttered as he paced the edges of the room. In the corner, a TV showed clips of disasters between pharmaceutical commercials, a double feature.
I watched the lines and letters dance across the white page in front of me. Doug’s purples had kicked in, and then some. The letters lifted off the page, hovered, and cascaded off in a waterfall. I tried to gather them up, but they darted away from me, and my side screamed.
I pinned down one of the lines and wrote my name. Then I crossed it out and wrote my great aunt’s dog’s name instead. A loud noise shot through the low quiet of the waiting room. It was Johnny versus a vending machine, round one, fight. A coke rolled out. K.O.
The ghostly outline of a cop stirred behind a gouged and scratched acrylic glass window, then was still.
Johnny cracked the can and sat down. When he put his feet up, Kali pushed them off her lap, continued reading a sheaf of pamphlets: Coping With Cancer, Treating Tuberculosis, Seeing Past Seasonal Affective Disorder. I didn’t know where Doug was. Probably hunting up some more purples.
A man limped into the waiting room. He was missing an arm. Slender little rivulets of blood fell from his shirt and filled up his shoes. Footprints on the white tile led up to the counter. He was handed a clipboard with a pen attached to it. He furrowed a brow at the forms.
I started to shake with laughter, but then Kali was putting me on my feet and moving me toward a swinging door. A nurse there was calling for my great aunt’s dog.
“He’s dead,” I said.
“Is he—” the nurse asked.
“He’ll be alright,” Kali said, steering me past the nurse.
“I’m only supposed to let family in, and even then, only one at a time,” the nurse said in a nasal drone.
“I’m family,” Kali said.
We clicked down the hall. There were closed doors and open ones. Beige machines trailing cords and tubes stood guard, alongside empty plastic chairs. There were stretchers by the wall runners, under bright antiseptic lights. Some had people on them, crumpled up like paper, others had blankets drawn over.
In the room, the nurse felt around the wound and the ache sounded from fathoms below. Her face kept changing. There was a sharp pain in my arm. Kali told me to relax, that it was going to be alright. Machines and tubes and articulated lights orbited around me. I felt processed, like I was moving through conveyors on a factory floor. I felt I was in a bad dream. I desperately needed to wake up and find myself at home in bed, my parents, still together, talking in low voices over the burble of the coffeemaker downstairs.
I cried out, and everything was still. It was night. Kali was there, and she moved over the bed. I tried to get up, but couldn’t move. I was paralyzed.
“It’s alright,” Kali said. “You started thrashing when they made you drink a solution to see inside your chest. So they sedated you. I don’t think it agreed with whatever Doug fed you.”
Kali leaned over me, touched the side of my face, then loosened the leather belts securing me to the bed. It seemed not quite heaven, but something close to it. I felt groggy, like part of me was still asleep. My body seemed to belong to someone else, a kind of inverted phantom limb feeling.
“The doctor wanted to keep you overnight for observation. She said there was a chance the bullet could fall into a vein and stop your heart. But if you’re still here in the morning, you’ll probably be OK,” Kali said. “They showed me the scan they took while you were under. You could see the path of the thing, bouncing off your rib, cutting through you, lodging in your liver. They didn’t know what to do with you. They’re used to treating real bullets.”
I shivered. The joke didn’t seem that funny anymore, hearing about the parts of you that you don’t ever think about. I had a splitting headache. I peeled back the sheets and there was a small gauze pad taped to my side. I felt exposed, somehow, open to the world and all its points and barbs.
“So it’s in there still?”
“A part of you,” she said.
I felt like furniture, like the bullet had made me a part of the world of objects and things, pulling me down from where we hovered above it all.
“At least you’ll have a story of your own now,” Kali said.
That’s when the door banged off the wall. It was Johnny, wild-eyed and trailing laces.
“We have to go, now,” Johnny said. “Doug got caught in the medicine cabinet and made a break for it. They’re coming for us.”
I started to rise, but felt suddenly tired, more tired than I’d been in my entire life. I fell back to the hospital bed.
“We need to move,” Johnny said. His mouth was a thin, cruel slash.
“Give me a second,” I said. The bed felt soft, safe. I wanted to sink into it, become it.
Johnny strode to the bed and punched a button. The bed began to elevate, slowly.
“I should have shot you in the head, maybe it would have knocked some sense into you.”
I looked at Kali but she looked at the floor.
“You meant to shoot me?” I said.
“You were going on and on about your great aunt. No offense, but she’s not our great aunt. And she’s not so great. Look, I gave you something to remember me by.”
I was thinking about afternoons and clouds and rivers, shattered days, wasted lives.
“I’ll kill you,” I said.
But I got tangled up in the cords and blankets and the paper gown. The pins and needles I was standing on collapsed underneath me.
“There’s no time for this,” Johnny said, dancing away. “We have to move.”
The freight elevator, a loading dock, through a maze of cardboard boxes and blue barrels, to the back alley, exhaust breathing from grates in the road, cold in my paper gown. Kali swung her old car up to the curb and we piled in, lit out. Under overpasses and elevated railways, we found Doug wandering Chinatown, staring at all the lights, pulling him in as he screamed, don’t take me, leaving the lights behind as we hugged the service road by the port, no sidewalks here, just rusted fences and warehouses and trucks blasting by, the cranes square against the dark gray of dawn.
We caught our breath at a construction site near the water.
The arc sodiums cast a lunar glow. Doug was a silhouette atop the dark crane arm. I was curled in the bucket of a backhoe. Around us were piles of dirt, the holes they were dug from. The construction equipment was still, as if we had interrupted the work when we came upon it all, the machinery flexing its chrome and pistons. There were complicated blocky mounds of bricks like ziggurats. In the far corner of the lot there was the last remaining wall of a building. The wall stood quiet and still, like it’d been there for a thousand years.
I wanted to remain until the workers returned and reanimated the machines, buried me under it all. I wanted to be a part of it. I didn’t want to think or feel or hurt anymore.
Johnny kicked a rock into a hole. It fell for a long time before bouncing around the foundation. I didn’t feel like pushing him into it anymore. I just felt punctured, like someone had let all the air out of me.
“You gonna be alright?” Kali said.
“I’ll land on my feet,” I said.
“Like a hedgehog,” Doug whispered.
“Shut up, Doug,” I said.
“You’ll be alright. Look at how things have worked out for you so far. You did nothing for twenty-five years and a pile of money landed on your lap,” Johnny said.
“It’s not that much. I talked it up a little. But if I only eat gas station food it’ll last me a few months,” I said. “When I waste away and die I’ll haunt you for putting a hole in me.”
“All I’m saying is that it wouldn’t be much of a change from when you were living,” Johnny said.
I got to my feet, but it was hard to seem imposing, half-naked in my paper gown. Kali looked at Johnny, who looked back at her.
Kali’s clear voice cut through the crisp early morning air.
“He’s right, Rocky. All you do is mope around town, talking about how it all used to be. Dredging up memories. It’s like you can’t see yourself in the future. Do you think nothing’s changed? We’re not kids anymore.”
“Sometimes you remind me of my residents,” Doug said. “Stuck in the past.”
“Shut up, Doug,” I said.
“Hey, that was a compliment. I like them.”
A gull landed on the dark arm of an excavator. I looked at it and it looked at me. Its eyes were cruel, its beak flecked with red. I took a few steps toward the water and found a large pit between me and the rusted fence. I looked into the pit and it was dark.
“We’ve got plans. Or at least the foundation of them. My cousin works at a prison down in Texas,” Kali said. “He said he could get Johnny a job. There’s a night school down there, too.”
The gull turned and beat the air with heavy wings, lumbering aloft and away. In the pit, there was standing water and a swollen, dead thing. There were discarded clothes without any color anymore.
“What about us?” I said. “What about Doug?”
Doug’s silhouette stirred against the lightening sky.
“I told you. I’m going to night school to get my RN in the fall,” Doug said. “Nothing lasts forever, Rocky. It’s like that hedgehog. It’ll work itself out.”
The horizon was going gray. Across the water, the smoke stacks were obscured by gauzy white clouds and a formation of birds vectored overhead. I wanted to hold it all in, hold everything in place. But it kept escaping me. It kept slipping through my fingers. The sun was just over the horizon, and it kept coming up.
Thomas Barnes lives in Boston, Massachusetts, where he works as a copywriter. His writing recently appeared in the Southwest Review. You can find him on Twitter @thmsbrns.
Photo credit: Pixabay