Dale had actually done it.
A burglar had broken into his home, and after several clear and commanding warnings were ignored, Dale had followed his training, aimed for the center of mass, exhaled, and pulled the trigger.
Now there he was, sitting on the stage with the rest of his family plus the mayor and the president of the local NRA chapter, in the Union Hall across from the Target on Poplar Street. Above and behind him was a banner reading “Nice shot, Dale!”, the same thing that had been written on the bulls eye shaped cake he’d been asked to cut. All day long people had been slapping him on the back and telling him what a great guy he was for what he had done. The local media had declared him a home-grown hero and the NRA wanted to pay him a lot of money to go speak to chapters all over the USA about what he had done.
Dale would rather have died. He felt like he was dying. Or maybe that he wanted to die.
There had been no satisfaction. No sense of victory. Not even the grim satisfaction of having done what had to be done. Just that young man’s head (the shot had gone high) exploding over and over again in his mind.
And with every explosion, the same question echoed in his mind : why did he have to kill the boy?
And boy he was. News said he was nineteen, and had a criminal record as long as your arm. They also said that the boy had a long history of mental instability, and at any point in time it was fifty-fifty whether he would be in jail or the loony bin. They’d had the boy’s social worker on, saying how she was saddened by the by the boy’s death…. but not surprised.
Not surprised. Here in Winsley County. Here in Big Fork, population three thousand. A town that prided itself on being peaceful, old-fashioned, and a great place to raise your kids. A town so small they didn’t even have a police station. Not surprised.
All around him, people were whooping it up big time, eating cake, drinking beer, and celebrating Dale’s act of heroism.
But he didn’t feel like a hero. He felt hollow, like if someone tapped him on the shoulder he’d ring like a bell. He felt cold, like there was a block of ice where his heart had been. But more than that, he felt… ashamed.
The boy’s head exploded again. Why’d he have to kill the boy?
The boy hadn’t been armed. He was skinny as a twig. He looked like he’d been dragged through the mud both ways uphill. He’d been wearing a plain white T-shirt and jeans so tight they looked like a coat of paint.
But most of all, he looked scared. Real real scared. And seeing him scared like that had felt… good. Real good. Like something out of a movie.
Then Dale had pulled the trigger and everything went to hell.
The worst part was, his wife had seen it. She’d been the one who’d woken him up and told him to go check what that noise in the kitchen was in the first place. She’d been right behind him on the stairs. She saw the whole thing.
Dale looked at her. Right now, she was smiling and nodding and looked for all the world like she was enjoying her time in the spotlight. She even looked at Dale adoringly now and then.
When she did, Dale wanted to die. He’d been married to Marsha for seventeen years, and knew the difference between when she was really happy and when she was putting on a show for company. He knew that right behind the smiles and warmth was something cold and dark that was only beginning to tear her up inside.
No woman – not even one as strong and loyal as Marsha – could see her husband splatter the brains of another human being asll over the kitchen… HER kitchen, the place where she cooked for and fed the family, the place where she had tea with her friends and talked to company – and not be deeply effected by it.
Dale figured they would be eating out for a while.
Dale looked out at all the people who had showed up to celebrate what he’d done. These were people he had known since childhood. People he’d hunted with. People he’d considered friends for his whole life. People he’d been to barbecues, church picnics, and town functions with. People he’d played with when he was a kid then tried to date when he was a teen. People whose kids were friends with his kids. Some of them he’d even voted for.
These were his people, the people he had more in common with than every other human being on the planet. But looking at them now, as they celebrated the fact that he’d killed someone who was barely more than a child, they look like demons and harpies to Dale.
The boy’s head exploded again. Why’d he have to kill the boy?
When Dale first saw him, the boy was at the fridge. He had a dozen packages and jars open and was eating from all of them, like he was trying to eat everything in the fridge at once. He’d been eating with such determined ferocity that Dale was sure the poor boy hadn’t eaten in weeks.
Had he really taken a human life just to keep from having to make an extra trip to Costco?
All the reasons the boy hadn’t listened to his warnings ran through Dale’s head. Maybe he hadn’t been able to hear Dale over the fridge’s compressor. Maybe he’d been too scared to move a muscle. Maybe he’d been too weak and confused to understand what Dale was saying. Maybe he’d had an attack of whatever kind of crazy he’d been and Dale looked like a ten foot alien to him.
From far away, Dale heard a voice he didn’t recognize calling his name. Guess I’m crazy now, he thought. Figures.
But then he realized that the voice was coming from the person standing in front of him. He forced himself to focus on the man.
It was Jim Miller, someone he had known when he was a plumber at the mill. He had a business card in his hand. How do they make them that white? thought Dale.
“…so I know we don’t know each other too well, uh, Dale, but I know what you’ve been through, and I just wanted to tell you… I get it. I mean, I understand what you are going through. It was after you left, but…. the reason I don’t work at the mill any more is that I was playing around in the control room, you know, fooling around to make people laugh… and I, I hit the button that activates the press, and… the new kid, the one from Ashbury, was cleaning the press like we’d told him to do…. anyhow, all I am trying to say is, I know what it’s like to, to… take a… life. And there’s people who help people like us, Dale. We call ourselves the Silver Thread, and it’s mostly cops, but I am sure I can get you in just like someone got me in. ”
Jim pressed the card he was holding into Dale’s hand. “That’s all our contact info. We have a hotline, a Facebook group, live chat, our own website, everything. Call them and say you’re from Big Fork and Jim sent you. They will know who you mean. ”
The card felt hot in Dale’s hand. He wanted to throw it away. But then he felt Marsha squeeze his other hand under the table, and he knew that, from her, that meant “Please do it. ”
“I’ll think about it. ” said a voice a lot like his own, and Jim smiled and nodded a bunch then went back to the party. Under the table, Marsha squeezed his hand again, this time meaning “thank you, well done. ”
Later that night, after all the goodbyes from all their friends, when they were finally heading to the motel they’d be staying at
while the police cleaned up their home, Dale threw the card into the garbage.
But he’d already copied all the information into his phone.