Michael S. Manley

Up | Back | Home

Grief Machines

originally published in Gingerbread House Literary Magazine #29

Their child died, murdered with gunfire, alongside the children of their neighbors, the children of people they’d never met, the adults who taught them and coached them. The gunman died that day, too, also from a bullet. They saw his photo afterward, a boy barely older than their own child with eyes like a whipped dog’s. In their dreams they found not their child, not the gunman, but guns, long and black, insectile, crawling on the kitchen counter, layered like rows of rattlesnake scales along the walls of their offices, laying cold across their lap and warm in their hands as they panted themselves awake.

This state of living persisted until the night they dreamed the machine, assembled from a halo of black metal scraps and their child’s cracked-open electronic games, powered by thermocouples twisted over burning candles, surrounded by old photographs and wilted flowers. They spliced two wires together and pressed a button. The air above the machine glowed old television blue and they stepped into it.

The morning of the shooting, they pulled their child out of school, scheduled a doctor’s appointment a week earlier than before. But while their child survived, the bullet took the neighbor’s kid instead. Their child would not leave the house, could not sit for breakfast without weeping. The two children had sneaked through a gap the hedges at night, holding hands on the swing set in the back yard, sharing music and cigarettes.

So they rebuilt the machine in the garage. They said into the blue glow, Time to think bigger. The machine snapped and spit as they stepped through.

The gunman’s rusting car sat in the midday sun At the end of the block. They slashed his tires. They called the sheriff and begged him to hurry. They stepped back into their child’s bedroom and knew, multiple sets of memories colliding like transparencies overlaid on a projector: He’d not driven his own car to the school, but instead had stolen his stepfather’s truck. Their child died.

They stepped through the machine’s light into the week before he bought the gun. They set fire to the dealer’s store, watched it smoke and smolder. Back in their house, they knew that he’d just driven past the boarded-up wreckage and purchased his rifle across the state line.

Each night, another plan, another prayer, another minor redirection.

They convinced Eugene Stoner not to sell his designs to Colt. They returned to memories not of the AR-15, but some other anonymous designator for some other black-barreled gun, just as hard and fierce and efficient, escaped into the civilian world. Their child died.

They returned home to pressure-cooker bombs used in high school cafeterias. To grenades tossed into sold-out theaters. To Reagan stabbed with a Bowie knife. To Kennedy’s SS-100-X taken out with a mortar. To automatic weapons stolen from the authorities, hidden for generations, bestowed upon young men with grievances and used, invariably, to their intended design.

Think bigger. Caked in gray dust like ghosts, they convinced Li Ting that the killing of an enemy from a distance represented a great sin, and he discarded the hand cannons forged to fight Prince Nayan. Disguised as bandits, they waylaid alchemists on the road and stole their stocks of sulfur and saltpeter. The gunpowder arrived nonetheless, and with it the fire arrow, the bomb, the gun. Their child’s bedroom sat quiet and cool, still as a crypt. The television told stories of young black men shot down by each other on the street.

They stole money from Don Siegel and Sam Peckinpah, from Arthur Penn, from Scorcese and Tarantino. The bullets cracked through windows and walls. They turned John Wayne on to hallucinogenics. People died in their churches. People died on the street. They convinced Eastwood and Stallone, then Snipes, then Willis and a dozen more actors to never hold a weapon on screen again. People died at work, at home, at the movies. They paid the quiet young men to take all the guns out of their video games. The guns swam through their dreams like sharks. They flocked like clouds of starlings that blacked out the sun.

They woke on a gray morning, rain hammering the windows, the fading memory of a storm of spent brass casings in their ears as they lit the candles under the machine. Each wick had burned down to a stub. The photographs had faded to cyan smears. The ring of metal slumped against the floor. Once more, they said, and the blue light arc spit and snapped bright.

The strip mall parking lot sat empty, save for a handful of cars at one edge where the employees parked and a lone beater tucked into the shadows at the other end. They’d slashed that car’s tires once. They knew if they smashed the window in, they’d find one of the guns under the driver’s seat. They’d find boxes of ammunition on the floorboards, purchased twenty minutes ago. They’d once burned that gun shop down, but now it stood whole at the end of the mall. On a bus bench at the corner, he sat fidgeting with a soda can, a collection of ill-fitting clothes and an awkward haircut alone in a pool of sodium lamplight.

The low whine of trucks on the highway filled their ears.

written in response to Chuck Wendig’s blog post.