Jason turns off the TV when the shooter’s face appears on the screen. The house is quiet and the setting of the autumn sun begins to darken the house. Kit will be home soon. He collects the ingredients from the pantry for a tuna noodle casserole. He opens the cans and boxes, dumping in the ingredients one at a time in layers until the dish is full. He pours himself a small glass of whiskey, with ice. When he puts the dish in the oven, a sharp snap sounds from outside. He nearly drops the dish. There is no sign of what made the noise when he looks out the kitchen window, only the slow wind and the swaying brush breaking the stillness. He sits down and catches his breath, sipping a bit on the whiskey. When he’s ready he sets the table for two. His ears adapt again to the silence of the house. The frequencies of the dead air hum in his ears and he begins to track the particles in the air floating in front of his face.
He waits for Kit in a cedar chair on the porch. Kit pulls up 20 minutes later and smiles briefly as she comes up the steps and into the house. She changes in their room while he takes the casserole out of the oven and pours each of them a beer. She comes in wearing a nightshirt and shorts and sits down, leaving the silence between them undisturbed. They eat in small quiet bites and occasionally glance at each other before looking down at their plates. When they finish, Jason cleans the table and Kit watches television on the couch, smoking a cigarette. Jason joins her and they eat the cake the Wilsons made for them. It was getting stale. They touch hands for a moment and she strokes his fingers, letting him know she is there.
After Kit leaves in the morning he paces the house. For an hour he walks around to each room opens the doors and looks inside, pausing for a long time at the empty bedroom. He goes back to the kitchen and makes himself another cup of coffee with a little whiskey. He stands in the living room in front of the gun cabinet. He pulls a handgun off the rack and holds it in his hands before locating the correct magazine in the locked drawer below. He returns to his cup of coffee in the kitchen and loads the bullets into the magazine. When he’s had his fill he goes out to his truck and sits behind the wheel. He looks ahead out the front window, and then starts the engine.
He pulls into a school parking lot in the middle section off to one side of the front entrance. He holds the gun in his hand pressing it to his lap, his eyes fixed on the main entrance doors. The cold steel warms in his grip and by late afternoon the metal is sweaty and sticks to his skin.
Each day he finds a new parking lot. Waiting in his truck, he watches the interactions of the children and staff: running, talking, staring. The observing comforts him some. The belief he is being useful brings him back. When the school day ends he returns home and makes dinner before Kit arrives.
After months of routine, Jason and Kit decide to separate. They both agree; there is no animosity. They separate their bank accounts and Jason retains his modest savings and pension checks. She keeps the house. After moving out, he creates a system, staying in motels and traveling to different schools each week. He has only been approached twice.
Three months after separating from Kit, he finishes his lunch in his truck, waiting in a high school parking lot. Something metallic catches his eye. Instinctively, he raises the gun, pointing it at a kid. The silver object glimmers from the boy’s hooded sweatshirt. Other kids gather around, some walk away and turn back with worried looks. He switches off the safety and aims the gun at the boy’s head. The boy walks toward the front doors. Jason’s finger hovers over the trigger. The image of the shooter from television comes to him, and he releases a pent-up breath.
A teacher grabs the boy’s arm and wrenches the metal object from him. It is smaller than a gun and has a black mouthpiece. The teacher turns it over in her hand, a rectangular vape. The gathered kids scatter and laugh. He drops the gun to the floor on the passenger’s side, rolls up the window and drives away.
He finds a hotel in the next town over and pays for two nights. He keeps the gun on the nightstand as he sleeps. He wakes up in the middle of the night and hides the gun in an air vent in the bathroom.
The next day, he drives to a park and sits on a bench near the playground. School is out and children are playing.. He sits near the swings and watches a little boy with red hair clutching the metal chains, struggling to pump his legs hard enough to swing higher than he already is. A parent sits next to Jason, silently watching her daughter on the swing next to the boy.
“Is that your son?” she asks.
“That’s Tanner,” he says without looking at her.
“Isabelle just learned how to do it on her own,” she says proudly.
“It took Tanner awhile too, but you gotta let them struggle a bit before they get a little confidence.” He looks at her finally and she smiles at him. They are silent for a moment.
“It’s been hard doing it alone.”
He nods. She smiles at her daughter, knowing all at once great satisfaction and sorrow.
“It’s freeing to watch them play like this.” She pauses. “Without worry for the future.”
“It’s important for them.”