[Note: This short story was originally published on November 20, 2017. It was a response to the Sutherland Springs church shooting , which claimed 27 lives. According to Wikipedia, since that event there have been 41 more mass shootings in the United States totaling 190 dead and 279 injured.]
“What are you drawing, honey?” the old man asked. He sat next to the little girl, the two of them in bright red plastic chairs that might have seemed comically small in another setting but were right at home here. All of the people in the room except for the old man were tiny: dozens of young children coloring, singing, laughing. Their artwork hung from the walls and warm spring sun poured through the windows.
“It’s you, silly,” the little girl said. “That’s your glasses, and that’s your tie.”
“Oh, that’s fine,” he said, his thick drawl dragging the last word into an elongated “fawn.” “And who are these gentlemen?”
“Those are your friends. You’re eating lunch at the fancy place.”
“Oh, I like fancy places. What are we eating?”
The little girl eyes darted toward the ceiling and she hummed, and then she grabbed an orange crayon and scribbled where the men’s plates would be. “Macaroni!” she said. “But not the kind that goes like this but the kind that goes around and around like a twirly slide because it’s a fancy place.”
The old man laughed. “That sounds like fancy macaroni, all right. Now, why am I lying down but everybody else is sitting at the table?” He left the first “Y” out of “everybody” when he spoke. “Am I taking a nap?”
Now it was the little girl’s turn to laugh. “No! It’s because you’re dead.”
The words stunned the old man. “Well that’s not a very nice picture.”
“Everybody dies,” said the little girl.
“You wouldn’t want me to draw a mean picture of you, would you?”
“You can draw whatever you want. It doesn’t matter,” she said with a shrug, never looking up from her paper. She was too busy putting the finishing touches on her dessert cart to be bothered with such things.
The old man grabbed a clean piece of paper from the stack in the middle of the little table. Sometimes the only way to get through to the little ones was to come down to their level. “Hand me that red crayon, honey,” he said.
“Don’t sass me, missy.” It occurred to him that he did not know the little girl’s name. He glanced around the room. None of the children looked familiar.
“You can’t have it. You’re not allowed,” the little girl said.
“I’m not allowed to color?”
“No, silly. You’re not allowed to use crayons.”
“Then how am I supposed to color?” the old man asked.
The little girl put down her crayon and turned to face him. “You have to finger paint,” she said. She lifted her shirt. Her belly was smooth and round as any young child’s is, but for what looked like a cigarette burn just below her rib cage. The burn trembled and wiggled like a small mouth trying to form a word, and then it gaped open. Blood gushed from the wound. “You have to use this. That’s the rules.”
The old man gasped and looked away, but the horror followed his gaze. Blood trickled from bullet wounds in heads, chests, limbs. A little boy missing an eye chased a tiny blonde girl with a hole in her throat, the two of them screaming with delight. “What is this place?” the old man whispered.
The little girl shrugged.
“Who are you?”
The little girl laughed. “We’re the kids you killed.”
This outraged the man. “In all my 75 years I never harmed another person,” he demanded. “How dare you make such an accusation. How dare you say such a thing.”
“Because you never tried to stop it,” the little girl said.
“The funny thing about dreams is that once you realize you’re dreaming you can stop it, or at least control it. I acknowledge that this is a dream,” the old man said.
“Okay, but I’m still dead,” the little girl said.
“I’ve never hurt anybody. Where did you hear such a terrible thing?”
“Everybody knows,” she said. “You didn’t try to stop it. None of you did.”
“None of who did?”
“You and your friends at the fancy place.”
“Oh, I see now. This is some kind of anti-gun virtual reality thing.” He removed his glasses and rubbed his ears. “This is in very poor taste. We just had that mass shooting out in California. Now is not the time to talk about gun violence, and even if it was this theatrical foolishness is too heavy-handed.”
“Okay, but I’m still dead,” the little girl said. Dozens of children played on the lush green lawn just outside of the big windows. Blood drained from their wounds as they skipped and jumped.
“You can’t blame me for this. I didn’t pull the trigger. You don’t understand. You’re just a little girl. We have a constitution. People have rights,” he declared. “Besides, in my 30 years in the senate I fought for the rights of unborn children. That counts for something, doesn’t it?”
“Okay, but I’m still dead,” the little girl repeated.
“The American people–” he droned, and the words bounced off the walls as if the room were empty.
“You’re silly,” the little girl said.
The old man’s face reddened. “I’m a good man,” he insisted. “I raised a family. I looked out for my constituents. I brought jobs home to my state. Why am I here?”
“Because you died, just like you were supposed to when it was your time, when you were old.”
“No, I mean why am I here. With you. With them,” he asked, and he waved a wrinkled hand toward the other children. “I didn’t do anything.”
“That’s why you’re here, silly.” She grabbed him by the hand and said, “Come on, I’ll show you where the babies are.”
“This isn’t real. This is just a nightmare. It’s time to wake up,” the old man said.
The pair entered a hallway and approached a long, glass wall, on the other side of which swaddled infants rested in sterile bassinets lined up like headstones. “Some of the babies were still inside their mommies and some were regular babies like my brother,” the little girl said. “That’s him over there. We play together, but only I play because he’s just a baby.”
“Where does that door go?” the old man asked, and he pointed to a trio of automatic glass doors. They rattled as if they were trying to open but were jammed or locked. “I believe I’ll go over there, but I’ll pray for you, honey. I’ll pray for all of you.”
“Okay, but I’ll still be dead,” the little girl said.
The old man walked toward the doors. As he neared the image through their steamy glass panels came into sharp focus, only it was not an image in the visual sense. What loomed on the other side of the automatic doors was an emotional image–every happy moment of his 75 years blended together like the peach milkshakes he loved as a boy. Peach milkshakes! He hadn’t thought about them in years, and now their icy crystals clung to his sensory organs. His first kiss, his wedding day, the births of his children, the day he won his senate seat, all whirling into a sensation of warmth and contentedness that remained just beyond the glass doors.
The doors rattled and clanked but would not open. The old man pressed the panic bar, a safety device he’d voted against on principle when he was just a state senator. The bill passed anyway, but the battle cemented his reputation as a legislator who would combat governmental overreach. “The American people do not need their government to act as their nanny” became his go-to line for the next 30 years. His base loved it.
He pressed and pressed, but the doors would not open. The warm feeling radiating from the other side took on the attitude of a sneeze that would not come, or an itch that wouldn’t go away. He remembered the adventure stories he loved as a child, where seamen were lured to their deaths by the calls of sirens. He knocked on the glass, but no one emerged on the other side.
“You can’t go in there. You’re not allowed,” the little girl said.
“What is this place?” the old man asked.
The girl shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know. You made it,” she said.
“I did nothing of the sort. The last thing I remember is sitting down in the dining room to talk with two of my colleagues about the tax cut bill. Then there was a pain in my chest, and that’s all. I did nothing.”
“Don’t be sad that you can’t go in there. We can color and play and make up stories, and there’s lots of kids and there’s more every day and there’s cake and–”
“Stop it, stop it,” he said, and he covered his ears with his hands. “My intentions were good. Please make it stop.”
“Maybe you can stop it with that,” the little girl said. She pointed to the ground next to the man, where a pistol rested. “I’m going to go play now.”
The old man began to cry, and then crying gave way to heaving sobs. His tired body slouched to the floor. “Pray for me,” he said.
“Okay, but you’ll still be dead,” she replied, but the last word was masked by the crack of gunfire. Burnt powder and copper lingered where peach milkshake so recently clung, and then there was silence.
“What are you drawing, honey?” the old man asked. He sat next to the little girl, the two of them in bright red plastic chairs that might have seemed comically small in another setting but were right at home here. All of the people in the room except for the old man were tiny: dozens of young children coloring,singing, laughing. Their artwork hung from the walls and warm spring sun poured through the windows.
“It’s you, silly,” the little girl said. She felt bad for him, going through this over and over again, never learning, never changing. He was in her thoughts and prayers.