He handed me the rifle, and I gladly accepted it. I was surprised that it felt like a toy, despite the name. It was a toy, despite the name. Plastic. No heft. It was a pellet gun, fueled by air: an air rifle. It was nothing like the real rifles I had been target shooting with for years.
Still, it was new, it was exciting, it was forbidden. In my house, guns were not toys. We hadn’t been allowed to own pellet rifles or b.b. guns. We had only been allowed to play with cap guns at our grandparents’ house, and those had been purchased by the grandparents without parental consent or knowledge. It was clear, that at home, guns were not toys. But, I wasn’t at home. I was at the neighbor’s house, and there I could be free of my parent’s draconian rules.
I looked down the sight of the rifle and fired twice in quick succession. Nothing happened. No kick against my shoulder. No loud report of gunpowder discharging. No sound of the projectile striking home.
I suspected it wasn’t loaded. I suspected it was broken. I couldn’t have possibly missed. I had fired real weapons. I knew what I was doing. It had to be something wrong with the toy.
The younger sister came out of the house, all mouth, singing and yelling and her noise was a distraction to my concentration. I turned the rifle on her to scare her into being quiet but she was undeterred. She knew it was a toy too. She knew I wouldn’t really shoot her.
I fired once, “Bang.” I spoke the word to increase the illusion of the toy being real.
Her singing turning to screaming.
I thought she was bluffing, playing along with my pretend firing, until I saw the blood. A small trickle crept beneath where her hand had slapped against her ear. She wasn’t pretending.
I had pulled the trigger. The rifle had fired. I had shot her.
My mind scrambled. The toy was supposed to be empty, or broken, or… It was supposed to be a toy. How could I have hit her? Something was wrong. I was a good kid. I didn’t do things like that.
And then I made the third and final mistake of the day. I did the only thing I could think to do. I fled. Scared. Confused. I jumped the fence and sought the sanctuary of home.
I’m not sure what I was expecting. The thinking of a child is naive in the ways of the world, hopeful that bad things will pass them by, expectant really. When the knock sounded out on our front door I rushed to answer it. One last effort to stave off the inevitable. The next several hours were spent making apologies, talking through what had happened with parents and the police, receiving disappointed looks, wallowing in my confusion and regrets.
The regrets lasted the longest.
It was only years later that I realized the full scope of how my life could have changed that day if the neighbor’s parents had decided to press charges, or sue my family, or if the pellet had been an inch to the left. I try not to think about it. I try not to picture how different my life would have been and how different the little girl’s life would have been if things had been worse than they were.
Keeping those thoughts at a distance during the day doesn’t keep them from haunting me at night.