Celeste McMaster



            In the back of his mind, Levi Graves knew the reason Leatha’d finally left him had something to do with the gun range. At sixty-four, he was set in his ways, too old to change now. And he knew too much of the world to go out into it unprotected. Maybe he did spend too much time there, talked about gun rights a little too much (when he did talk at all), had one too many shotguns and pistols around the house. It was more than that, he knew, but her body had always tensed whenever he touched on the subject.

            Now the first Sunday morning without her he was at that very gun range, the one he’d worked so hard to own, the only one in Rustberg, Virginia. Levi liked to get there before the church folks rolled in, anxious to blast away the uneasy feelings of sitting stiff and cramped in the pews. He faced the guns mounted on a black wall with gold lines, like a reverse bumble bee, and took a box of bullets from the shelves underneath stacked in red, blue, yellow, and white boxes, like candy at the cinema where his Mama would take him as a boy to see John Wayne movies. Now he stood holding his Magnum .44 like an old friend, the weight of it in his hand, the way his thumb knew the trigger, the sure proud feel of its cold heaviness.

           Sure, he didn’t have much to protect after losing Leatha, he thought, lining up the sights on the gun. Leatha had been the only person who’d loved him enough to notice the complexity in his eyes. She said that though they were both dark brown, nearly black, his right eye was kind and his left was mean. Leatha only looked into his left eye, the kind one, when they talked. She pointed out the tiny birthmark underneath his left eye. Touching it, she said it looked like a tiny scorpion. Though she’d laughed when she said it, he knew what she was thinking:  even his kindness was tinged with meanness.

            The silhouetted man he was shooting had no arms, as if already at a disadvantage. Four concentric circles leading to the thick black X in the heart. Levi shot the heart every time. Shot. Shot. Shot.

            If Levi had only known at twelve what he knew now, or even five years later, about guns, about security, his Mama would be alive now, sitting in the rocking chair she loved, knitting one of her afghans, chicory coffee brewing in the kitchen. This was the secret he kept from Leatha, from everyone—even himself, when he could get away with it. That day, coming home from school, Levi saw the destruction his drunk daddy had wrought: everything smashed: glass, his mama’s chair, and then he saw her, saw Mama herself crumpled in a heap by the fireplace, her face bloody.

            If he’d of been there just a few minutes earlier he could have saved her.

            For some reason he just took off running, heart racing, off into the woods and stayed there for days, screaming out, sobbing like a girl, not letting himself worry about anything like food, for why should he get to eat when his mama was dead?

            He’d come back to yellow tape and police cars, his daddy already hauled off to Rustberg prison.

            He shot, each time thinking of his daddy. Imagining his daddy hurting Mama. Protecting Leatha from any threat that might ever come to her. He shot again and again and again, smelling the smoke of a security he’d never have.


Celeste McMaster is an associate professor of English at Charleston Southern University. She has published fiction and poetry in Short Story, The Dos Passos Review, New Delta Review, and Arkansas Review, among other places, and was the 2016 winner of The Saturday Evening Post’s Great American Fiction Contest. She recently won the 2017 Elizabeth Boatwright Coker Fellowship in Short Fiction, presented by the South Carolina Academy of Authors.


return to fiction              home