“Uh, sorry,” I blurted out. “I just wanted to bring you your cookies.”
Taylor raised one hand to wipe his brow. He was sweating and I couldn’t figure out why. He had the window cracked open and it was chilly in his room.
Taylor cleared his throat. “I told you I didn’t want any cookies.” His voice sounded tight and shaken.
Was he crying? I wondered. Again? I stood, frozen and embarrassed for him. I couldn’t bear to see my older brother cry. He was the strongest, bravest man I knew. I didn’t know what else to say so I simply walked to his nightstand and set the plate down beside the bottle of liquor. It was another bottle; barely any of the amber liquid was left. I was surprised to see a copy of A Christmas Carol there as well. I looked around nervously, trying to catch a glimpse of what Taylor was hiding under his blanket.
“I set the plate right here, okay? You can eat them when you want.”
I felt a panic rise up inside me, the uh-oh feeling my mama used to tell me about. Something wasn’t right. I didn’t know what, so I kept talking.
“You’re reading A Christmas Carol, too?”
Taylor didn’t respond. He sat at an angle so I couldn’t see what was in his hands.
“I’m almost done,” I chatted on, looking over his shoulder. “I’m at the part where the Ghost of Christmas Future is showing him his grave. It’s kinda scary.”
“Are you coming to the Christmas play? It’s A Christmas Carol.”
Taylor shook his head wearily. “No.”
“I don’t blame you. It’s not going to be that good. But Mama’s all excited. She’s baking the cookies for the intermission.”
Taylor deigned to look at me. His eyes were red-rimmed and sunken. “Aren’t you supposed to be in school?”
I shook my head. “Exams.”
He sighed and his shoulders slumped.
“Whatcha got there?” I lamely pointed to what he was holding.
I took a step closer, my eyes narrowing in scrutiny. “Let me see.” When Taylor moved to block my view with his shoulder, I said, “I’m just going to keep pestering till you let me see.”
“Get out of here.” He swung his arm indicating the door.
In that flash of movement the blanket lifted just enough that I caught sight of black metal in his left hand. “Hey, is that a gun?”
“What if it is?” Taylor snapped back.
“Can I see it?”
“No. Go on, get outta here.”
“What is it? A pistol?” I stepped closer. “What are you doing with it?”
“I’m cleaning it.”
I took a quick scan of the bed and floor and didn’t see any cleaning equipment. Taylor had already left for the Marines before Daddy taught me to hunt. But I knew all about cleaning guns and I knew he was lying. He wasn’t cleaning any gun. Now I was really scared.
“Can I hold it?”
“Don’t be an idiot. No. It’s loaded.”
“It is?” I swallowed thickly. “You’d better unload it! Daddy says you shouldn’t hold a loaded gun in the house.”
Taylor laughed shortly at that, only I couldn’t see what he thought was funny. Nonetheless he brought the pistol to his lap. I watched as he used his thumb to push the release, and a black magazine dropped into his hand. Then with his palm he swiftly pulled the slide back on the top of the gun and a single bullet went flying through the air to land on the floor. I immediately clambered after it.
“Leave it be,” Taylor commanded. “Don’t touch it.”
I froze, then straightened and nervously crossed my arms across my chest. “I’ve never seen a magazine up close before. That’s cool.”
“Cool?” Taylor asked, flicking me an assessing glance. “It’s not cool. It’s a killing machine.”
“So why do you have it here? You’re not at war anymore.”
He laughed shortly. “Aren’t I?” Taylor picked up the magazine and stared at it a minute. “You’re a good kid.” Taylor was still looking at the gun. “A good brother. But you should go.” He looked up, and though we didn’t speak, I felt a surge of love in his gaze. And a farewell.
I took a few steps back, suddenly terrified for my brother. “I forgot your milk for those cookies,” I told him. “I’ll be right back.”
“Don’t come back.”
“I’m coming right back!” I shouted as I ran from the room, purposefully leaving the door open.
I took off for the kitchen, my heart beating like a wild thing in my chest. I prayed Mama would still be in there, and mercifully she was standing at the table moving cookies from the baking sheet with a big spatula.
“Did you . . .” She stopped when she saw my face.
I ran into her arms, tears filling my eyes. I was so scared I could barely talk.
“Miller, what is it?” She dropped the spatula and put her arms around me.
“Mama. Taylor . . .”
Her voice went cold. “What about Taylor?”
I straightened and looked in her eyes. “He’s got a gun.”
Her face paled, and with a gasp, she grabbed my shoulders. “You stay right here,” she ordered. “Call your father. But if you hear a gunshot, call 911.”
Without another word, she ran out of the kitchen. I hurried to the phone across the kitchen. My hand was shaking so much I could hardly dial. Hearing my father’s voice at the end of the line, I wanted to weep with relief.
“Daddy!” I choked out. My voice was raspy, like I’d been running.
“What’s the matter?” He was instantly alert.
“Mama said to call you. Taylor’s got a gun.”
“I’m on my way.”
The phone went dead. I hung it up and waited by the kitchen entry, staring up the long flight of stairs for several minutes. Those were the longest minutes of my life. There was no way I could stay in the kitchen. I was compelled closer, climbing up the stairs one by one, cringing at each creak, holding my breath. When I reached the top of the stairs, I stopped and clutched the wood post, clinging to it, real tight, like I was adrift in a stormy sea and if I let go, I’d drown. It was an angry day, spitting and whirling in a fury of wind and rain. There would be flooding, I thought. I hoped it wouldn’t slow Daddy down, that he would make it home fast. I listened to the wind wail and craned my neck to hear the occasional voice from behind the closed door. Sometimes Mama’s. Sometimes Taylor’s. Just when I thought I couldn’t wait a minute longer, I heard the front door burst open. My father rushed in, rain dripping from his hair down his face, his clothes soaked.