“His Blackbird” by Kelly DeLong

My stepbrother Kevin entered my mother and his father’s bedroom, reached under their bed and pulled out the leather gun case. Quickly, he unzipped it, pulled out the shotgun, broke the gun in half and placed the two shotgun shells he’d taken out of his father’s top dresser drawer into their slots and closed the gun.

            He held the gun in front of him as he stood at the top of the stairs, his heart racing as he listened for the sound that had him scared enough to do what his father had warned him not to do: “Never touch my guns without me.”

            My stepfather had two guns, a .22 and a shotgun. A couple times, since Kevin and I turned twelve (we were the same age), my stepfather had taken out the .22 and walked us up the wooded mountain we lived at the bottom of to shoot at paper bullseyes he hung from tree branches with wire.

            I was a better shot than Kevin, mostly, I theorized, because at my dad’s I had a Daisy air rifle I used for target practice. I shot downstairs in our long basement into a shooting gallery my dad had made. He said I’d know I was a good shot when I could snuff out the flame on a candle. He lit the candle in my shooting gallery, and I shot and shot. I could hit the wick and cause the flame to flicker but I couldn’t put it out.

            And yet I figured if I was good enough to hit the wick of a candle at thirty feet, I was a good enough shot to hit a bird. One cloudy day I took my air rifle outside and pointed it at a blackbird in the grass of our front yard. I aimed, fired, and watched the BB disappear into the feathers of the bird’s wing. His body shook slightly and he looked at me, sadly, it appeared to me, as if to say, What did you do that for?

            Embarrassed by the look he gave me, I took my gun inside, knowing I’d never shoot at another living creature. Kevin, however, was still looking for something living to shoot. Up in the woods, with his father’s .22, he pointed the barrel at squirrels, but his father said no. Unlike me, Kevin hadn’t gotten it out of his system.

He came down the stairs slowly, step by step (he would tell me later), the gun pointed in front of him, his finger on the trigger.

            We had left him alone in the house—an unusual occurrence—while we went to the mall. Known to fall asleep at any time of the day, Kevin hadn’t responded when his father tried to wake him after dinner, so he left him a note telling him where we were. Kevin woke in darkness, turned on the light, read the note and heard something downstairs. When he determined what he’d heard wasn’t his family back in the house, he got scared. He thought about the guns under his father and stepmother’s bed.

            Unsure where the sound he’d heard had come from, after descending the stairs, Kevin crept up to the living room entrance, his back against the wall like police on TV. When ready, he swung his body around, gun first, aiming to shoot anything that moved. He softly stepped through the living room, his mind racing, his heart pumping faster than ever. He looked behind the loveseat, the sofa, to the side of the desk, his finger more than ready to squeeze that trigger.

            He crept through the foyer, down the hall, into the kitchen, through the laundry room and into the family room. He stood just inside, listening, looking for anything out of the ordinary, feeling the need to shoot the gun in his hands. He’d chosen the shotgun, he told me, because it was the gun he hadn’t shot yet, the one his father wouldn’t let him shoot. It was the gun that would do the most damage.

            Kevin was a kid, who was scared, who’d been left alone, who thought he heard a sound that threatened him. He had a loaded gun he desperately wanted to shoot. All he needed was his blackbird.

Kelly DeLong teaches at Clark Atlanta University. He is the author of the novel The Poor Sucker and the nonfiction book The Freshman Year at an HBCU.