“Take a deep breath and release it. When your lungs are empty, gently squeeze the trigger.”
Jessie tightened her grip on the Sig Sauer and inhaled sharply through her nose. The girl’s body trembled as she held her breath, but Gordon put a steadying hand on her shoulder, prompting her to release it. She tightened her finger around the trigger, rocking through the Sig’s double action, until finally the hammer fell and the gun jerked in her hand. Twenty yards away, the bullet tore through the outer border of a paper target before embedding itself in the wooden backstop. Five inches to the left and she would have hit the green silhouette. Seven more past that and she would have put a bullet between the eyes of the would-be assailant.
“Sweet,” said Gordon, patting Jessie’s shoulder. “You scared him. Now try to stop him.”
The wind had loosed a few strands of her blonde hair; Jessie tucked them behind the earpiece of her safety glasses. She followed his instructions again, but slower this time, taking several seconds to draw in a breath. It fluttered out through her slightly parted lips, almost visible in the cold November morning. She paused to let the last of the shivers leave her hand and then pulled the trigger twice in quick succession.
The first bullet landed just inside the green target while the second didn’t even mark the paper.
Jessie thumbed the release on the side of the gun and dropped the empty magazine into her waiting hand. She inspected the chamber to make sure it was empty before placing the Sig on the foam lining of its carrying case. She stepped away from the blue barrel and open her hands to show Gordon they were empty.
He nodded at her. “First shot was on target. He won’t be hearing anything out of that side of his head for the rest of his life. Second one missed entirely.” Gordon went to a knee and looked up at the ten year old girl who just the week before had been reluctant to even pick up a weapon. “You rushed it, Jess. You breathe, you fire. You shortcut the process and someone’s gonna end up getting the better of you.”
“Sorry,” said Jessie.
“Hey now.” Gordon touched her on the cheek. “Don’t be down. I didn’t learn to shoot until I was twice your age. You’re gonna be dotting Indians in no time, guarantee you me.”
Her eyes lit up at the prospect. “You mean it?”
“Just takes practice,” said Gordon, drawing himself up. He raised a finger in the air. “I fear not the girl who has fired a thousand guns once. I fear the girl who has fired a single gun a thousand times.”
Jessie stared back, unblinking.
“Put three more in the magazine for me,” he said, handing her the autoloader.
As the girl shook three bullets out of the small ammo box, Gordon caught movement out of the corner of his eye. Coming out of the tree line behind him was the blue vest and wide-brimmed hat of Jeff Evans, the democratically elected arbiter of the Lost Pines Survivalists camp. His gait suggested there was more to his sudden appearance than the desire for an early morning stroll. He held up a hand as he cut through the benches that had been set up for spectators.
“Ready,” said Jessie, holding up the magazine.
“Slot it up, but don’t charge just yet.”
“I thought I’d find you two out here,” said Jeff, touching the brim of his hat. “Does your mama know what you’re up to, Jessie?”
The girl nodded enthusiastically. “It was her idea. She said Mr. Gordon is the best shot in three counties.”
“Is that so?”
Gordon shrugged. He had no choice but to play humble when people talked about his skill with a gun. Had it been some innate ability or something acquired through years of practice, he might have smiled and genuinely accepted the praise. But no, his abilities had come through code, had come from a shortcut he had just told Jessie didn’t exist. He had thought they might fade with time, like the muscle memory in his fingers that no longer remembered how to play the opening riff to Paradise City, but they persevered through the years, through the neglect.
“What’s he got you shooting there?” asked Jeff.
Jessie ejected the magazine, checked the chamber, and then handed the gun grip-first to Jeff. Gordon had spent two days going over gun safety with the girl, and he was proud to see her treat the weapon with respect without having to be reminded.
“Looks like this guy’s seen some action. From your personal stash?”
Gordon nodded. Mechanical arms in the video library in his head sought out the tapes of a night some twenty years ago when the Sig and its identical brother had last seen action. Before the imaginary vidscreen could flicker on, Gordon began to count, running through an ascending list of integers to keep his mind busy. The numbers incremented faster and faster, until the impulse to relive the past faded from conscious thought.
“Well,” said Jeff. “It’s a fine weapon. Why don’t you show me what you can do with it, Jessie?”
The girl looked to Gordon for permission. He handed her the magazine and nodded to the blue barrel.
“Take it slow,” he told her. “Count to twenty between each shot.”
Gordon and Jeff took several steps back as Jessie got into position. She wouldn’t be able to hear them at a distance with her earplugs in, but Gordon spoke in a softer voice just to be safe.
“So what can I do for you, Sheriff?”
“You know I hate when you call me that, Gordon. Authority is held by the people, not by the person. All I do is help settle disagreements.”
“And you do a fine job.”
A breeze cut across the firing range, prompting Jessie to lower her gun for a moment.
Gordon looked back at the sun behind him. The sky was clear, but the cold and the wind were keeping the harsh rays at bay. It was a fine day for a little target practice.
“I don’t know a lot about you, Gordon. But I do know you value your privacy. We all know that.”
The first shot rang out.
“Spit it out, Jeff.”
“There’s a woman at the gates, asking after you. Not by name, but… Gordon, the things she knows about you, the way she described you. I mean, it just fits your timeline. It explains why you walked in here twenty years ago with a single duffle bag and a reluctance to tell use your real name.”
“No,” said Jeff. “It’s not. She showed me the pictures. You’re younger, but it’s you.”
“What did you tell her?”
The second shot answered for him, followed by an aborted cheer from Jessie.
Jeff cracked a smile. “I told her to fuck off, what do you think I told her?”
“But that doesn’t mean I’m not concerned. Some of the things she told me, well, they might make Clemons nervous. You two already don’t see eye to eye, and this might be enough for him to stir up some serious noise. I for one wouldn’t want to see you get the boot.”
The resulting silence was broken by the third shot. Jessie put the gun down on the barrel and turned around, smiling.
Gordon gave her a little clap.
“You don’t owe child support, do you?” asked Jeff.
The memory of a hotel room at the Austonian flashed. Her saw her lying on the couch, her head rolled to one side, before the counting drowned the image out.
“Not likely,” said Gordon, chuckling.
“It makes you nervous, doesn’t it? Having someone come ’round asking for you?”
“What makes you think that?”
Jeff lifted the brim of his hat and made a show of looking down. “You’ve had your hand on your gun since I mentioned the pictures.”
Gordon loosened his grip on the Sig and crossed his arms again.
“So she was telling the truth,” said Jeff. “You really are him.”
“No,” he replied. “Not anymore.”
“Come on, Gordon. You know none of us really change.”
“Mr. Gordon! I got him in the face!” Jessie had retrieved the paper target from the backstop and now held it out proudly in front of her.
“A fine shot,” said Jeff.
“Good job, Jess. I think that’s enough for one day.”
Jessie looked like she wanted to protest, but the girl had gotten used to taking orders as one of the stipulations of Gordon training her. She showed her empty hands and then took off at a youthful run towards the tree line. “See you tomorrow, Mr. Gordon!”
Gordon waited for her to disappear in the greenbelt. “I guess that depends on what you tell Clemons.”
“I’m not gonna tell him a damn thing,” said Jeff. “But you may want to come clean to the group about who you really are. We’ve got families here depending on each other for survival. It’s not fair to use us as cover. Like you said, you’re not the man you were twenty years ago, so I think you know you have to do what’s right.”
“What’s right? Or what’s necessary?”
Jeff patted Gordon on the back of his shoulder like a father might do before teaching his son a lesson.
“That depends on which is more important to you.” He touched his hat and headed off towards the tree line, leaving Gordon alone with the cold breeze.
As he cleared the Sig and placed its various pieces into the foam lining of its carrying case, he thought about how lucky he had been to last this long. Going off the grid wasn’t something done on a whim, and staying off for good was a dream rarely realized. Thoughts of what he could have done differently ran through this head, but back then, he’d done all he could. Cutting all ties to the world, sending out false leads, saying goodbye to the technology he had loved so dearly: these were the sacrifices he had made.
“I’m not going back,” he said aloud.
If anything, it was time to go deeper. Flee to Peru or Siberia, somewhere the tech couldn’t follow him, where stories of his past had never been heard and passed around like legends. He’d find another group of outcasts to glom onto, maybe teach their children how to shoot and kill, prepare them for the coming war.
Gordon hesitated, but finally willed himself to take that first step towards the tree line. Soon, he had passed through the greenbelt and come out on the east side of the compound near the vegetable gardens run by Sam Reed and his boys. A dirt path took Gordon to the plaza where half a dozen men stood sipping water from canteens. Around them were ATV flatbeds loaded with freshly cut firewood. A group of younger boys were transferring the wood to wheelbarrows so they could distribute it to the roughly thirty families lived and work at LPS. Last year’s winter had been the worst Texas had seen in decades. No one was going to suffer through a cold night this year, not if Clemons had anything to say about it.
Tyler Clemons nodded to Gordon as he passed. The former golden boy at Mac Haik Temple still talked like a used car salesman, but even Gordon could detect the sincerity in his voice. If Russell Hildebrand had actually died from his pneumonia last winter, Gordon was pretty sure Clemons would have climbed down into that little boy’s grave and stayed there until he joined him on the other side.
And yet something about the man didn’t sit right with Gordon.
He managed a curt nod and continued on his way. Past the double-wide trailers, Gordon took a northerly turn and ended up near the small stream that ran through the compound. Across a newly built footbridge and up an abrupt rise was his cabin, complete with its own bathroom and separate bedroom. Those hadn’t come with the cabin when he got it, but he’d found that home improvement was just as effective as counting when it came to keeping the memories down. So he’d redone the interior, added his own water closet, and finally the bedroom, of which his twin bed filled half.
Gordon stepped inside and left the door open behind him.
The main room was big enough. A fireplace sat between two wooden rockers. Facing them was a couch with new upholstery done by Jessie’s aunt. Directly ahead, a small refrigerator buzzed from the half-kitchen. There was no stove, but the hot plate was sufficient for making a quick meal. To the right was Gordon’s dining table, not that he could remember ever eating dinner there. Most of his meals came from the cafeteria where he could sit around expansive picnic tables with like-minded individuals who had withdrawn from a world that was spiraling out of control.
Withdrawn from a government that wanted to enslave them.
From corporations that wanted to exploit them.
From a population too frightened to believe that salvation could come from within, from the innocent men and women trapped in the system.
Gordon crossed the room and stood next to the rocking chair. He fingered his belt until his holster started to slide down his leg, leaving the Sig safely tucked in his other hand. With a groan, he collapsed into the chair and put his head back. It was too early in the morning to be feeling his age, but the cold always made the creaks worse. His mind jumped forward, playing out the scene to come. For once, he didn’t start counting.
Instead, he closed his eyes and waited.
Sometime later, footsteps sounded from the door.
When Gordon opened his eyes, he saw the small frame of a woman standing in silhouette except for her hair, which burned a fiery red. From the center of the shadow, gold dots stared back at him across the gulf.
Gordon steadied the Sig on the arm of the chair.
“What took you so long?” he asked.