Empathy by Christopher K. Miller

Emile, a teenage gun obsessive with Asperger's, connects with two suffering strangers at the Cordova Arms-Fair in Memphis, Tennessee; by Christopher K. Miller.

They met not at one of Memphis's over two-thousand Christian places of worship but at the Cordova Arms-Fair out on Trinity Creek Cove, a few blocks west of the old Walmart supercenter. Sally, who'd driven up from Germantown, was there to return a silencer she'd bought for her T4 Nighthawk. Not defective or anything. Made the 9mm semi-auto's ordinarily sharp report sound to her ears almost exactly like someone coughing spitballs through a fat plastic straw. But it also made poor little Chompy, her Doberman Shepherd cross, yelp and whine, and sometimes even squirt a little, with each wet splut. The sales associate, after explaining the only way Arms-Fair could offer rock-bottom prices on top-of-the-line ordnance was through a strict no-returns policy, admitted someone should've told her that that particular suppressor worked by venting gasses through a kind of ultra-high-frequency whistle. Suggested she try lightening her load, maybe go with the 105-grain Federal Guard Dog round. Safer for shooting home intruders, too. Designed not to punch through walls and such. Even offered to waive commission on a box. But Sally, having already spent over four grand on the premium handgun with optional aluminum frame and padded green carrying case, believed fervently that the store ought to, in her case, make an exception to its strict no-returns policy. Even went so far as to kneel down right there below the week's featured firearm, dubbed Second Amendment, a net-ready, laser-scoped, flash & muzzle-suppressed, self-propelled, .125 cal Barrett/Audi Model 6X6 military-grade sniper rifle with a programmable AI, four integrated 2420p x 1260p 120 fps webcams, a centimeter-level precision Trimble GNSS, and, best of all, remote aim & fire capability. "The drone you own," pitched the display's flawless female voice, engineered to project the same confidence and barely suppressed joy as (but come across a hint less authoritarian than) Walmart's "Please proceed to checkout..." lady. Overhead on an airscreen, a 20-point buck nibbled low-hanging acorns in the double crosshairs of a scope whose rangefinder's readout showed 2760' 7.5" through a 2.25 mph east-southeasterly cross-breeze, along with some barometric data. "Hunt anything anywhere from the comfort and safety of your home," prompted the display as Sally closed her eyes, folded her hands, bowed her head and asked Jesus to forgive this salesman his intransigence, show him the error of his ways, and let her at least exchange, if not return, the Osprey.

Jarrod was at an adjacent counter looking to find a choke for the sawed-off Savage-12 he'd just that morning picked up for a song at a lawnsale over in Collierville. Less than a song, even. And for such a beautiful piece: burled black walnut stock with ivory inlay and laser engraving; pristine trigger plate assembly. The seller, some acned kid with a pathological stutter, had been so anxious to part he'd probably have paid to have it taken off his hands. Like an answer to a prayer. Literally. Just not the right answer. Jarrod always prayed before lawnsaling. The counter associate, an older woman with silver hair and a mouthful of gold crowns, agreed it'd be easier and probably cheaper to extend the sawed-off's muzzle with a choke than to try to register it as a short-barrel shotgun. Said she herself had always favored the Cutts compensator. Helluva bang, sure, but no better spread. Too bad they stopped makin' em. Smelled of Tennessee corn and sweet pecan bud as she leaned in to whisper he could probably still find used ones on Amazon, though. Otherwise, best go with a Trulock. Lathed solid bar. No welded crap. Jarrod had just fished out his American Express when he saw Sally praying under the soon-to-be-dead buck. Back in a flash, he said, returning the card to its NFC-shielded pouch.

Rang up the devil on his cell, asked how went Emile's first night in the pit. Devil said, Besides someone ate his eyes, seemed to get along.

Emile, who'd been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome at age five, now, at fifteen, owned more guns than anyone in the store, and maybe the state. He'd memorized all their manuals and could, and regularly did, disassemble, clean, oil and reassemble them in complete darkness. He loved them all. Knew each one's specs - muzzle velocity, recoil energy, target spread and so forth, for every possible load - much the way certain football fans know their favorite teams' passing, rushing, receiving and sack stats, or the way horse racing aficionados tend to know the ponies. In Tennessee, one may not vote or gamble or, in most cases, marry until their late teens, but may, if certified, hunt unsupervised from the age of ten. Emile had received his hunting safety certificate at this tender age and held a valid hunting license ever since. Because he never actually hunted, he needed no special game tags or permits. He was a member of both the Memphis Sport Shooting Association and the Tennessee Firearms Association, whose magazine, Sentry, he always read from cover to cover. Although he did enjoy aiming his firearms via their various aperture, telescopic, holographic and laser sighting mechanisms at shooting complexes' and ranges' NRA-endorsed paper targets and through his bedroom window at unwitting, often moving, targets, and then, when perfectly ready, exhaling a precise and plosive, "bang" or "pow" or, sometimes, "crack" while simulating with his arm and shoulder muscles the weapon's correct recoil, none of his guns had ever actually been fired. His interest in them, though consuming, was purely theoretical in nature.

He had, as per usual, affixed to his person two devices. Beneath baggy fatigues, strapped to his thigh in a custom holster made of old leather belts, was a Glock 18C with a full 33-round magazine and one in the chamber. Though not technically licensed for concealed carry of a machine-pistol, he assumed, given his oft-renewed hunting license, longstanding memberships in the MSSA and TFA, and the numerous caveats in Tennessee's carry laws, that any charges if ever even laid would never stick. Of course he understood himself to be physically and psychologically unprepared to fire it, and really only carried it for the same reason he assumed most civilized nations kept nuclear weapons always at the ready. Strapped to his head was a device resembling a wire-mesh bicycle helmet but that was in fact a low-energy, solid-state maser designed to increase ion-channeling in specific areas of the cerebral cortex, a natural refinement of and extension to the previous century's microwave weaponization and mind-control technologies. It had been prescribed two years ago by a psychiatrist who believed it an efficacious treatment within a narrow spectrum of high-functioning autisms, and always made Emile feel as if he were being watched. There was a panel plate he was not supposed to remove beneath which he'd found a tiny circuit board rife with DIP switches and potentiometers through which he could make adjustments to the unit's demeanor, a demeanor that, for the most part, struck him as benign; interested, but purely as an observer. Although whatever it was stayed always behind him, out of sight, there was a rotary switch that seemed to affect its distance. When screwed full clockwise, it brought the Watcher so close as to feel perched on one or the other of his shoulders, evoking images of tiny cartoon devils and angels respectively personifying their characters' ids and super-egos. Counterclockwise seemed to move it back, as much as several yards, and, depending on other settings, could project impetuses ranging from its wishing not to be seen with him to just not being able to keep up. A trio of toggle switches, in one configuration, seemed to augment its default clinical detachment with a sense of bemused curiosity and perplexedness, while, in another, made him feel stalked. Occasionally it would mutter something unintelligible. Asleep, it entered into his dreams but still would not reveal itself, as if even here he could not look upon its face and live. At first it was all very interesting and disconcerting, but over time had become, as long term relationships often do, something he could take for granted and even ignore. But, also as with many long term relationships regardless of their nurture, he had become addicted to it. Removing the device from his head now made him feel as if, for better or worse, a part of himself were missing, and thereby disenfranchised, unworthy of the universe's attention, so that nowadays, except to make experimental adjustments and, as with the Glock, to bathe or shower, he never took it off.

He'd become something of an Arms-Fair fixture, a valued though standoffish customer who perused the store on a regular twice-daily basis. Naturally he'd discovered a keen interest in the Second Amendment. While drawn, of course, to the rifle's revolutionary specifications and QNX-facilitated integration into the Internet of Things, it was its remote-control enablement that held for him the greatest thrall. Not because it distanced him from the gun but because it distanced him from himself. In effect, let him become the object of his obsession, see the world as if through its eyes instead of his own. Except to blink, breathe and swallow, he'd watched its entire eleven minute presentation seven times consecutively without employing a single voluntary muscle and could, and did, now mentally recite along word for word with the script's female narrator. When the weapon's high-velocity frangible tungsten-carbide needle struck the 20-point buck just below and behind its right eye, "humanely obliterating its brain," a difficult shot he knew to be discouraged even at much closer ranges, he and his electromagnetic doppelganger, again, like the buck, though for just that moment, disappeared. This time when he returned, he saw Sally and Jarrod on their knees praying before the sales associate. It was then that the entity strapped to his head demonstrated for the first time a will of its own. In a whisper clear and emphatic, and welcoming of no dissent, it directed that he join them.

Told the devil I wouldn't make it, after all. Devil said I shoulda done it when I had the chance.

At first neither Sally nor Jarrod noticed the young man with the strange crown kneeling behind them. But then both felt something that they would later describe in independent Facebook posts as "an overwhelming sense of forgiveness and reunion."

Sally had always been a Christian and, as such, believed that her belief in Jesus entitled, indeed obligated, her to make requests in his name. It wasn't important to her whether Jesus himself acted directly on her behalf or passed her requests on to God to handle, though her trust in both had been shaken of late.

Jarrod, while more devout, had only been a Christian since college, pursuant to an altar call at a tent revival conducted by a Reverend Roy Jackson, best known for his Southwest radio ministries. It was Jarrod's understanding that invoking Jesus's name authorized him to petition God directly, dropping the son's name serving only as a kind of personal reference or password. His affinity for God had blossomed after losing his own son, Jesse, by neglecting to safety a rifle used to prop a barbed wire fence while out jackrabbit hunting together. He'd bought the gun, a Cricket .22 LR, as a grade 4 graduation present for the boy after seeing it favorably reviewed in a Field and Stream article entitled "First Real Rifle" that had rekindled in him some of the excitement of his own first rimfire. In hindsight, he wished he'd taken better note of the reviewer's description of the Cricket's 3-pound trigger pull as "a little light for youngsters." Jesse, who'd not yet taken a certified hunting safety course, had grabbed his new gun by the muzzle after crawling under the wire fence. A sheath of Indiangrass that'd tangled in the trigger guard caused it to discharge.

Not a day, probably not even an hour, had passed since then that Jarrod hadn't played it over in his mind. The pop muffled by Jesse's palm followed by his startled squeak. His own great relief that it was just a small-caliber, copper-jacketed through-and-through, a tiny flesh perforation not much larger than a framing nail would make, and nowhere near any vital organs. Told the kid to wiggle his fingers. No broken bones either. Even made jokes to buck the boy up and staunch his tears while they headed back. Like how many bad guys do you think Roy Rogers shot in the hand? Never aimed to kill, only disarm. Got one almost every episode. Got shot himself in return, too, though. More than a few times. Probably held some sort of record for bullets to the left shoulder. That'd made the kid smile. And didya know him and his wife, Dale Evans, were Christians? Appeared with Billy Graham in crusades all over the country. And didya know it was Mark Twain himself who first called jackrabbits jackrabbits? Before that people called em jack-ass rabbits on account of their mule ears. Kid hadn't known any of that. Now Jarrod wished he'd staunched not the boy's tears with jokes and stories but his blood with a tourniquet. Even with the kid wiping it on and sort of hiding it in all that high Indiangrass, like it was an embarrassment, he should've seen, should've taken heed. In hindsight, he always saw clearly: freckles accentuated by the gradual blanching of his son's fair complexion; streaks of crimson in the pale green grass. But not at the time. Not when it mattered, he hadn't. Then, he'd just kept yammering away. Right up until the boy collapsed, and seized. Medical examiner said the bullet had shredded both the superficial and deep palmar arches. A total fluke. Probably couldn't repeat it if you tried a million times. Nonetheless, Jesse, his only son, his best little buddy, had bled out where the wrist's ulnar and radial arteries divide and join in the hand. And no matter how many times and how diligently Jarrod went over it in his mind, revisited and relived the moment and wished and prayed for some other outcome, it always turned out the same. Always the same damn ending.

Sally asked the devil, could she bring a date. Devil said, Sure. Here everybody's welcome.

Back in Germantown, Clarence, Sally's husband of almost thirty years, was dying of pancreatic cancer. He'd refused all treatments save over-the-counter analgesics and prayer, arguing that, given this particular cancer's dire prognosis, he'd probably suffer enough without poisoning, burning and cutting himself all up to boot. Sally'd felt strongly otherwise: that he ought to grab at every available straw, including the Whipple procedure. Of course they'd both asked Jesus for guidance, but apparently gotten different directions. Their insurance provider had raised their deductible even before results from the initial biopsy had come back, so that, had Clarence elected to undergo any of cancer's ghastly and expensive remedies, they would've had to tap out all their credit cards and take out a second mortgage. So, in a way, she'd been relieved by his refusals to submit. Always admired that strong, stubborn streak of his. But now that the cancer had spread to surrounding nerve clusters and the bones of his pelvis and lower back so that he lay in constant and excruciating agony, Sally wondered if Jesus hadn't mistaken her anxieties regarding financial commitments for a want of love and honor, and was punishing her for violating their marriage vows. In any case, it was horrible to behold. Clarence no longer slept as much as just lost consciousness from sheer exhaustion, and even then gnashed his teeth, wept and moaned like the damned. Some people from her church who had their own Facebook group called Prayer Warriors had begun letting her know through daily postings that she and her husband were in their prayers. Sometimes, when Sally was feeling strong and hopeful, she'd ask Jesus for a complete recovery. The rest of the time she just begged for mercy. The Prayer Warriors never said specifically what they were asking for on her and her husband's behalf, and sometimes she wondered if they weren't as ambivalent as she was and if their confusion hadn't caused Clarence to become stuck in the purgatory between life and death, sort of how too many people pushing this way and that on a sofa can get it jammed in a doorway. Or maybe all they asked was God's will be done, which had always struck her as funny in a "goes without saying" kind of way, but now made her angry whenever she stopped to think about it.

Posted on devil's wall, Can we bring the children, too? Devil replied with a like and a smiley: Heavens yes! Wouldn't be the same without 'em.

Emile, after two years of maser induction therapy, still did not enjoy or encourage the physical proximity of others. His parents, blaming themselves for or just frustrated by his distancing, had compensated by presenting him with a beloved firearm at every gift-giving opportunity, especially Christmas. But now, kneeling behind the pair praying, he experienced an unfamiliar need for closeness. Both disturbing and compelling, it was like the two before him were powerful electromagnets, and he, ferrous metal. As he shuffled forward on his knees into the warmth of their combined auras, the thing that had so long followed behind him now seemed to reach around with appendages that were not so much arms or wings or tentacles but greater extensions of itself, and so more as if to swallow than embrace him. The closer he crawled, the more pronounced this feeling of inclusion became as the more the Watcher enfolded itself onto him. When he pulled Sally and Jarrod together and pressed their cheeks to his, the Watcher revealed itself in full. And, whereas through the remote-controlled Second Amendment's sensory interfaces he'd become the weapon, here, the weapon became them.

Sally and Jarrod's personal space, though diminished, had not been obliterated by their praying together. It was only the spiritual equivalent of sex. So at first it was perturbing to be physically pulled together by this young third party with the strange headgear. But then, whatever it is that distinguishes and separates existence from God and one person from another began to gradually dissolve until they experienced a kind of shared epiphany: that, beyond form's ephemeral distinctions, there is only one thing, and that the remote entity, whom they'd been addressing and trying to control through prayer, was in fact themselves.

Jarrod, whose wife had left not long after the death of their son, saw a beloved husband racked by unbearable pain. Remembered a doctor peering up over reading glasses to inform them of his diagnosis: premature menopause. Then, later, a flood of affection at this husband's not caring a whit about any of that. All the more for me, Sweet Pea. Didn't get married to make more people.

And Sally, who'd never had children of her own, saw a beloved son bearing the stigmata. Remembered a Sunday together, after church, plinking at photos of Bin Laden with an air rifle out at the Montgomery County Shooting Complex, and how they'd got into trouble on account of pictures of people weren't allowed as targets there. Almost got the boot. Montgomery's a family-oriented shooting complex with strong Christian values. But then the range supervisor'd laughed and made an exception. "Guess if the guy's face is good enough for urinal mats..."

And Jarrod realized that the silencer whose return they were praying for wasn't for home intruders at all, but for the beloved husband. That it emended the gun, converted it into a kind of medical device. Just as, Sally now realized, the choke did the sawed-off Savage 12. Together they watched Jesse and Clarence render these purchases immaterial by joining hands across the veil, as they themselves now did around the boy with the funny hat. And Emile, alone at last, reveled in the Second Amendment's looping advertisement's flickering promises, his encroaching sixteenth birthday and the security of the many straps that now, more than ever, held him together and in place.

Told the devil, Can't stay long. Devil just laughed, handed me a glass and said, Glad you could make it.

10 comments:

  1. This story strikes me with its contradictions: guns and Christianity, the push and pull of contradictory prayers. As a consequence, bizarre as “Empathy” is, the story is realistic at the same time. I think of Vonnegut, John Irving, and George Saunders. The tone is perfect. And if you are reading this, you’ve no doubt read the story. So, I don’t have to tell you how well-written it is.

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  2. Thanks for the feedback and comparisons, Mark. Both times I've been through Memphis, I was impressed by all the gun stores and churches. And those three authors are some of my favorites. Really appreciate your taking the time to remark.

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  3. This story took a lot of research. Americana style, intricate detail. The second amendment comes across as a central theme, alongside religion and communication. Lots of issues touched..medical costs, technology as a miracle worker. The contradictions strike me also. Very interesting interplay of scenes and topics. Indeed, well written.

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  4. Amazing story. Probably the best I've read on this site. Three wonderful characters. The Asperger's boy was the most true to life!

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  5. Thank you Harrison and Rosemary for reading and for your thoughtful remarks. Research is for sure my favorite part of writing (thank god for the internet). I much appreciate your having taken the time.

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  6. This story is so densely packed--with information, themes, emotions, backstory--I think if you tried to fit in one more thing the words might burst off of the page. Loved all of the angles on a single moment in time. A truly impressive work.

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  7. Thanks Ron! Laughed at your "if..." (and now wish I had tried). Seriously appreciate your reading, and your generous review.

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  8. An interesting look at zealotry in its different forms. Lots of gun information, and I love the Devil snippets. This is a thinking read. Thank you.

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  9. Impressive work. I loved the jam-packed, flow of consciousness style; perfect for the emotions and ideas being portrayed. Each of the characters were drowning in sadness. The detail was amazing. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story with us.

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  10. Thank you, Alexander and James. Really appreciate the kind feedback.

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