If she’d quit smoking the week before, like she’d planned, Penny never would have found the gun.
That summer a heatwave was crisping the hedges, killing old people and making the birds pant helplessly, beaks agape. Bushfire smoke drifted into the city, tinting the daylight amber and giving the air a sweet, woody scent. Walking home from work that night, Penny was pissed off, and she’d flicked her cigarette butt into the bushes without thinking.
As she stamped out the butt, she spotted something nestled in the parched shrubs, a shape glinting under the streetlight. At first she thought it was a toy, some plastic replica lost in a game of cops and robbers. But when she picked it up, the weight of it sent a quick thrill skating through her. She checked the street: empty.
A childish thought skipped across her mind: finders keepers. Penny put the gun in her shoulder bag and walked away quickly, her blood banging out a loud pattern. Maybe it was a good-luck omen; what had her fortune cookie said this morning? It is better to be the hammer than the anvil. She smiled: some good luck was way overdue. She rolled another smoke and decided not to head home just yet. Her housemate spent his life inhaling bongs in front of the twenty-four-hour news channel, and she wasn’t in the mood for him. She walked faster than usual, taking long strides, a new confidence welling up inside her. Her bag swung heavy on her hip and she felt strong.
Next morning she phoned work to ask about the roster. The manager picked up. A sour man with a neurotically thin moustache, Greg liked to play favourites, and Penny wasn’t one of them. His answers were curt, and he kept saying her name like it tasted bad. No shifts available next week, Penny; I’m in the middle of a stocktake, Penny, we’ll be in touch if we need you. She hung up and swore at her bedroom wall.
Five weeks into the job she’d balanced the till wrong twice, and yesterday had lost her temper with two pimply jerks in the fruit aisle who’d made repeated enquiries about ‘them melons’ while gawking at her chest. Penny was sick of it, all the ogling and moronic comments, and her reply had been quick-witted and lacerating. It had also been loud. The two creeps slunk away but Greg appeared at her elbow. Next thing she was in the storeroom listening to him cite a long and viciously exaggerated list of her shortcomings as a grocery worker. He refused to let her explain, so she’d been reduced to glowering.
Out in the lounge room her housemate Derek was hunched over a breakfast of Cheezels, watching TV with the curtains shut. Onscreen the bushfires devoured whole swathes of the map; the camera panned across the blackened shells of homes, and emergency workers led weeping people through the smoke. ‘Hey,’ said Penny. Derek grunted a hello.
She took her daily fortune cookie to her room: Today is the tomorrow we worried about yesterday, it informed her. What the hell was that supposed to mean?
Her sketchpad lay on the desk. Penny regarded the gap beneath the wardrobe for a while. Then she kneeled down and slid the gun out, positioned it in the sunlight, and began drawing. It was a beautifully designed thing. She sketched its outline, blocked in shading, copied the curlicued logo and the tiny writing stamped into the metal. The final result wasn’t bad. At least she could still draw.
The firing mechanism was hidden somewhere inside. Fiddling with guns was a bad idea, but if she was careful … A childhood spent dissecting household appliances and copping whacks around the head from her stepfather had taught her how to put things back together properly, to treat machinery with respect. She tried a small catch, and the cylinder gaped open. A light tremor went through her. There were six bullets inside.
That night she opened all the windows wide, but the house would not cool down. Derek was sucking at his bong like an asthma patient taking bottled oxygen. On TV a suspected arsonist was being taken into police custody, a towel draped over his head as the cops held back an angry crowd. ‘Don’t you get sick of watching that stuff?’ Penny asked.
Derek, busy packing a cone, didn’t reply.
‘I’m going for a walk. Have a good night,’ she said, not bothering to hide her sarcasm.
Penny set out for the field by the airport, where you could lie back and watch the planes, pale bird-bellies exposed as they rose or sank toward their destinations. She crossed the bridge over the aqueduct, a dry concrete avenue with a channel running down its middle, a strip of black water at the bottom, and slipped through the wires of an old farm fence.
A big jumbo lumbered over the tarmac to the runway entrance, and then squatted under the lights as if gathering up courage. The engine screamed as the spindly front wheels left the ground, and the huge beast heaved itself clear and tore right over the top of her. Its stomach slid past, white and vulnerable.
When she reached into her bag to roll a smoke, there it was, wrapped in a scrap of velvet. Carefully she held the gun aloft. Its blue-black metal gleamed in the airport lights as she weighed the heft and menace of the thing. She’d read up on the model: the cylinder contained six chambers where you loaded the bullets; when the gun fired, one bullet shot out, the cylinder spun, and the next one was right there, ready to go.
How would it feel to point a loaded gun right at someone, someone who had it coming? Greg’s smirk fading, those assholes who’d taunted her falling silent, backing away. Her stepdad losing the upper hand for once. Yes, she thought, a cold kind of pleasure blooming inside her. She had some idea how it would feel.
Two days passed in a blur of heat. Penny left her CV at a couple of cafes and registered for the dole. The woman behind the desk asked questions and noisily banged Penny’s replies into her computer. ‘What was the reason for leaving your last job?’
‘It wasn’t really a proper job,’ Penny said, ‘just shifts here and there. They’ve got none at the moment.’
The woman looked up. ‘They just stopped calling?’
Penny nodded and the keyboard clattered for what seemed like a long time.
Go confidently in the direction of your dreams, one fortune cookie had instructed. But sometimes that recurring dream came: the one where she lay wide awake, frozen motionless, feigning sleep as she watched the silent shape of a man standing at the foot of her bed. Her dreams had nothing good to say.
Now, after dark, she’d go out walking. ‘Later,’ she called to Derek as she left that evening. The day’s heat radiated off the footpaths, sending hot swirls around her bare legs as she crossed the road to cut through the park.
She was less than halfway across when she heard the footsteps. The man was behind her and gaining steadily. It sounded as if he was wearing heavy boots, like the ones worn by tradies. Walking faster would do no good; she was still a long way from the far side. She had two choices: run, or turn around to face him. She slid her hand into her bag and felt her fingers slot neatly into the gun’s handgrip. As she turned she heard him speak: ‘Hey. You got a light?’
Penny kept her voice level. ‘No,’ she said, ‘and you better just keep walking.’
It wasn’t until he laughed, a dry noise with no humour in it, that she took the gun from her bag and held it low against her leg.
‘You were the one just walking,’ said the man in a pleasant voice. ‘Now you’ve stopped, so I’m asking if you got a light.’
She thought fast: should she pull back the hammer, or was the first shot primed to go if you squeezed the trigger hard? ‘No, I’ve quit,’ was all she could think to say.
‘What you doing out here by yourself?’ he asked, and this time he made no effort to sound friendly.
She had no idea where the words came from: ‘I’m looking for assholes. Are you an asshole?’ The gun was raised now, pointed at his middle.
‘What’s that you got?’ The man’s outline shifted, craning a little closer. ‘What is that?’
Then he backed off and she could just make out his hands, lifted up in front of him. ‘I just wanted a light,’ he said. ‘You need to fucking relax.’
Penny tried to keep her voice strong. ‘Go away. Just go, right now.’
His footsteps began retreating. ‘Crazy fucken bitch,’ she heard him call back.
Penny listened until there was nothing but the high screech of cicadas and her own shallow breathing. She turned and ran, her heart slamming in her chest.
Out under the flight path she lay in the grass and tried to slow her breath. She had been lucky, she reasoned; if she hadn’t had the gun, it could have happened to her all over again. But she knew it was not quite that simple, because without the gun she’d never have cut through the park at night in the first place. The thing that had saved her … it was the same thing that had led her to take the risk. And what if she’d pulled the trigger and shot him, right there in the dark? How would that really feel, afterward?
One split-second decision, one chance encounter, and your whole life could switch course, events tumbling on uncontrollably like those rows of falling dominoes. You can’t reverse things: once the bullet drops into the chamber it’s too late.
In the sky a plane was circling, coming in to land on her runway. She cradled the gun against her stomach and tuned in to the approaching roar.
Next morning Derek was watching the bushfire coverage again. ‘Can’t we watch something else? This is depressing,’ said Penny.
‘There’s a cool change coming through,’ he said. ‘I wanna see what happens.’
In the kitchen she snapped open a fortune cookie: Something you lost will soon turn up. She was thinking this over, trying to recall all the stuff she’d misplaced over the years, when the TV noise cut off abruptly and she heard Derek speaking on the phone. Something in his voice, an anxious note, brought her back into the lounge room.
‘So they got out?’ Derek was asking. ‘They’re safe, they’re going to be OK?’ He let out a long breath, nodding.
Penny waited until he’d hung up. ‘Everything all right?’
‘Cousins. My mum’s sister. Probably lose the house, but everyone got out in time.’
She wasn’t sure what to say. He’d never told her he had family up in the hills; but then again, she’d never asked. She felt a faint sense of shame. How would it feel, sitting there watching the fire devour whole towns, knowing someone you cared about was in its path? She got two icy poles from the freezer and offered one to Derek. ‘Thanks,’ he said.
It was mid morning when Penny left the house. The sun leaked across the sky like something bleeding, and in the amber light her shadow on the footpath took on a strange terracotta hue. She walked out to the bridge over the aqueduct. For a while she stood there in the heat, watching the planes take off and rise up into the hazy air.
She took the gun from her bag. One by one, she took all six bullets from their chambers and dropped them into the water, which swallowed them with barely a sound. Then she placed the gun on the ledge of the aqueduct and walked away: not slow, not fast, just heading home.
This story is taken from Meg Mundell’s collection Things I Did For Money (to be published by Scribe on February 4, e-book $4.99)