Something’s been stolen from inside me, an emptiness now dwelling in its place. I’ll never get it back, because you can’t change the past, no matter how much you want to. You can only influence the future.
I’m a solitary figure in a crowd of ten thousand strangers, all packed into a convention centre’s arena in downtown Dallas. It heaves with them and the history that scars this city. They’re decked in stars and stripes and colourful caps, the vast space garlanded with balloons and banners. Conversations crackle. The atmosphere, somewhere between a children’s party and a baseball match, swamps me. Everything’s big over here: the portions, the personalities, the pride.
I never really settled in this country. I’ve long been a rudderless boat drifting from Daytona Beach into the Atlantic Ocean, just waiting to sink. I didn’t even want to come here.
‘Just imagine it, Carol.’
Todd dissuaded my doubts, seducing me with descriptions of a laidback lifestyle basking in year-round sun, whispering in my ear about trading grey clouds and grimy streets with sea and sand stretching into the horizon. My Floridian husband filled my head with fantasies of sun-kissed skin and mornings lazing at beach bars devouring fresh grapefruits and oranges.
‘Just imagine it.’
Until, finally, I’d agreed to uproot from London to where Todd was born, the perfect place to raise our daughter Lauren: living the American Dream in the Sunshine State.
I didn’t even consider guns.
As I scan the arena’s tiers, the stench of salty snacks and fried food adds to my nausea. The queasiness began this morning when I entered the exhibition halls to be welcomed by rows upon rows upon rows of weapons, as if equipping an army. Every type of pistol and rifle and shotgun for sale. That stomach-lurching sensation, as if my rickety boat was caught in a Florida thunderstorm, was the same as the first time I held a gun six months ago. The cold grip felt alien and the stark grey walls of the shooting range seemed to converge. It was like clutching Kryptonite. Unable to hold it in any longer, vomit splattered concrete and splashed my skirt to disgusted looks, before my stomach’s pooling contents were mopped clean away. The second time I collapsed into sobbing. By my third visit I could hold the piece of metal in a shaky hand. On the next, my finger brushed the trigger.
A booming voice brings me back to the arena as lights dim and the chatter fades. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to our guest of honour at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention: the leader of the free world, the President of the United States of America.’
Rock music blares. A dark-suited figure strolls across the stage as jauntily as a gameshow host. Whoops ricochet off the walls as he spreads his arms wide enough to hug the room, his sausage-like fingers milking the adulation. Camera phones pursue POTUS as he slopes around, more child than elderly man. He gives a thumbs up, waves, then conducts their joyous chants of ‘U…S…A’.
‘All the world’s a stage,’ recites over and over in my mind until I’m sick of it. Finally, he stands behind a podium where the emblem of his office gleams in gold. Behind him hangs a blue backdrop, the letters NRA blazoned repeatedly across it like words running through candy.
A spotlight halos his yellow hair, swept back into slick strands to hide whatever’s underneath. A thin microphone snakes towards his lips.
‘Thank you, folks.’ His voices resonates around the room. POTUS holds up his hands. For a moment, I think he’s surrendering. ‘Thank you. I’m honoured to be here.’
He’s straight in front of me; I’m in the balcony seats encircling him. I imagine reaching out across the distance separating us and being able to touch him. Instead, I clasp a hand rail. The feeble barrier designed to stop me falling is the only thing in the space between us.
I spot bodyguards: giant gargoyles in the wings, shoulders square, hands clenched, faces resembling Mount Rushmore’s sculptures, their only movement the flitting of eyes. I’m the least person they’d suspect: a middle-aged hag shrouded in a baggy, woollen cardigan, grey before my time. I’m invisible to them.
Security searched me coming into the arena anyway. I’d nothing on me, didn’t even need the complimentary storage area where knives are safely stowed. The irony of not allowing weapons into an NRA gun rally was bittersweet.
‘While the president is in attendance, the arena is under the jurisdiction of the US Secret Service, ma’am,’ explained a goon with a serious smile. So they want the “good guys with guns” guarding our schools and workplaces but don’t trust them near POTUS.
An ovation thunders and cameras flash like the afternoon Florida storms I never expected, where the sky turns purple before unleashing hell, forcing everyone to take cover.
‘Tremendous people,’ POTUS says. ‘Tremendous. You know, I’ve just flown back from the UK where my mom hails from. Reminds me. Very proud people.’ He takes in all the faces gazing at him. ‘Tough and strong,’ he says with wistful solemnity, as if survival is an ancient art. ‘Tremendous.’
POTUS rambles on but his words wash over me. I don’t care for the homespun tales designed to make him seem quaint and friendly. They just cause the hole inside me to widen. Once upon a time, I had a loving family, a happy home and a peaceful life. Just history now. Nothing left but painful memories.
It’s hot in here, with all these hollering people shoulder to shoulder. Sweat glistens on POTUS’ tangerine forehead. It reminds me of being under the glare of searing studio lights on the day we met. Sat opposite on swish sofas on a breakfast show, I was as close as could be to him.
I’d recoiled from the cameras but steeled my nerves to tell him about the last time I saw Lauren, a year ago now. How I’d sent her off to school with a lunchbox of peanut jelly sandwiches and a shiny red apple. How I’d kissed her on the forehead and she’d squirmed with teenage awkwardness at what had once been a sweet tradition. He beamed at this image, as American and homely as apple pie, that I’d inserted into his brain, somehow not quite grasping where the story would end.
That memory of Lauren’s departure frequently returns to me in the dead of night; one moment beautiful, the next tormenting. Our final contact was my lips brushing her soft skin, my final words ‘love you, honey’, my final gesture the last time I smiled. Then the knowledge that I’d packed her off to a war zone, like a cowardly commander sending a youthful soldier to Vietnam, slaps me. Where was the motherly intuition that should have made me call her back?
POTUS sank into that comfy sofa as I told him about the motherless boy roaming the empty corridors with a legally purchased AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, a warped mind and an adolescent grudge.
His face fell as I described the boy bursting into her classroom, swinging the rifle free from inside his camouflage jacket and hailing kids with bullets.
He shook his head as I detailed how one penetrated Lauren’s beautiful heart before her classmates were mown down like blades of grass.
The massacre left seventeen dead.
‘Oh boy,’ POTUS muttered, straightening his tie, air whistling through his whitened teeth. ‘Terrible. Just terrible.’
He squinted as if the lights were blazing in his eyes.
After a period of awkward silence, he said: ‘Carol, if only their teacher was armed.’
‘He was the first one shot. Had his back to the door.’ The facts had become so cold to me that they just slid off my tongue. ‘The bullet severed his spine, left him immobile.’
He shook his head again.
The silence felt unbreakable.
‘Lack of security,’ he said finally. ‘Shoulda been armed guards at the gates, at the doors.’
‘The sole trooper they could afford was in another part of the campus dealing with some minor incident.’
And it’s a school, I’d thought, not the Pentagon.
‘Can’t you just take away all the guns,’ I pleaded. ‘That way no-one gets shot. People could still fire at shooting ranges or licensed hunts. Relieve your testosterone that way.’
‘We gotta do something, Carol.’ He sat with his legs splayed cowboy-wide, shirt buttons straining as if nothing could contain him. ‘I don’t want sickos having guns. We gotta take action.’ His lips scrunched like paper. ‘I ain’t afraid of taking on the NRA. Sometimes you gotta be tough and fight them.’
I look at him now as he bathes in their acclaim. At his toady smile; part grimace, part grin, those thin lips only slightly raised, chin jutting. Did I ever really believe him? I have to turn away, focusing instead on a young man nearby wearing a black t-shirt bearing the slogan “you can take my guns one bullet at a time.” An image of a bullet tears through that word.
I recall the shooting range where I’d jump at the sudden bursts of fire. It wasn’t until the seventh trip that I was able to aim at a target. The next time I was determined to shoot. Heart racing, the handle slick with sweat, the fear was overwhelming. But I stood my ground, willed my finger into action. A flash of white light. An ear-splitting explosion. My body jolted, vibrations shuddering to my core. The acrid smell of cordite pricked my nostrils. Collapsing to my knees, panting, adrenaline surged through me. I’d fired my first bullet. It was weeks before I could return.
Applause bounces around the arena, dragging me back to POTUS. He’s talking about unemployment being the lowest this century. The meaningless figures are parchment-dry to me.
‘He’s on fire,’ yells someone and the crowd cheers, flourishing their flags. I envisage flames licking around him, diminishing him to dust. The same as my daughter, now nothing but cold, grey ash in a little urn on my mantelpiece. Occasionally, I take her out on trips to high schools to show impressionable minds what guns can reduce a person to. That’s just a fraction of the relentless campaigning I undertook after Lauren’s death. I never wanted the limelight but had to do something. It became an addiction; like alcohol it numbed the pain at first. I’d stomp streets during protests, joined the March for Our Lives, harangued journalists, demanded gun law reform and ended up on TV with him. I tried every argument. All a waste of time. And you can only distract yourself for so long. The pain lessens over time, they said. They were wrong.
Guns are everywhere in Florida, taunting and haunting me. And the locals don’t appreciate outsiders voicing objections. Now all I notice is the flatness of the land and the neighbours who speak Spanish and the gated communities where security guards stare from little gatehouses. Now I’m plagued by scuttling reptiles that make my skin crawl and bugs splattered across my windscreen. Now I can’t escape the heat and humidity.
When I heard he was coming here and he was on their side, the shooting range became my second home. By my umpteenth visit, I was hitting the target every time, small black holes piercing paper torsos.
‘Let’s talk about the Second Amendment, folks.’
POTUS’ voice rises with the heat, relish rippling through the crowd. The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
I’ve pored over those 27 words. Greater minds than mine have studied, debated and fought over them. Some just read “the right to bear arms.” All I see is the word “militia” and the right of a state to defend itself. If it’s so unclear, so subjective, so open to interpretation, then why is it so sacrosanct?
‘Your Second Amendment rights are under siege. But they will never, ever, be under siege as long as I am president.’
It’s as if it’s one of the Ten Commandments, rather than devilish words scrawled across a scrap of paper by a long-dead man. He’s a preacher addressing the converted. But he has no authority from God.
‘You have an administration fighting to protect your Second Amendment. We have to do the right thing.’
Perspiration pours from me. My cardigan itches. Clapping builds until it almost sounds like screaming.
POTUS grips the podium. ‘It seems to me that if we’re gonna outlaw guns as so many people want to, we’re gonna have to outlaw all vans and trucks, which are now the new form of death for the maniac terrorists. Right?’
White hot anger sears through me. I want to yell how ridiculous that is. Vehicles are designed to transport you, have a purpose. But guns? Their only function is to kill or maim. They’re not needed, wouldn’t be missed.
I picture the last image of Lauren, the high school photo all the media used: long wavy hair, a shy smile, bright eyes.
‘London has unbelievably tough gun laws. A hospital there is a war zone for horrible stabbing wounds. They don’t have guns, they have knives. And instead, there’s blood all over the floors, as bad as a military war zone hospital.’ He makes a stabbing motion, as if he’s attacking Janet Leigh in the shower, to shrieks of delight. My fingers curl, nails digging into palms. Lauren would have had a chance against a knifeman. He might have been stopped. He’d never have been able to kill so many so easily and so quickly.
Laughter becomes cackling. Every muscle inside me tenses. I close my eyes and concentrate on my breathing. My conscience is clear. Lauren was an innocent thirteen-year-old. He lies through his teeth. Ridicules and persecutes the weak. Endangers everyone. If someone can take my daughter’s life for no reason then why can’t I take his for a purpose, for the greater good, for the protection of others? Once he’s dead, they’ll have to bring in gun restrictions. I’ll have achieved something and protected all those who would have died in the future without this intervention.
I’ll have changed the course of history.
A handgun is strapped to the underside of my plastic seat by a piece of masking tape. On the bereavement message boards, where we nurtured our grievances, I found an ally who works here. Someone prepared to take a risk. Turns out it wasn’t hard to smuggle a Glock G19 from a gun rally’s exhibition halls into the connecting arena, after security checks had been completed.
Opening my eyes, I reach down and tear off the tape.
As they cheer, a cold sensation slices through me. An alternative, horrifying possibility. They adore him. What if I make him a martyr? What if this backfires, making their cause stronger than mine? I hesitate. The future is a slippery creature that could slide from my grasp.
I place the pistol on my lap, hidden beneath my cardigan, and contemplate what will happen.
I’m not naïve. I know assassins rarely live long enough to see the effect of their actions. I’ll probably be dead not long after my bullet hits. But I will smile for the first time in a year as relief floods the cavern inside me. Knowledge of the aftershocks from the earthquake I’ll unleash will be a last taste of euphoria, as painfully beautiful as childbirth.
Our struggle to have a baby suddenly chokes me. We’d endured several years of heartbreaks until, in my late thirties, my perfect daughter finally arrived. Now she’s gone. My husband too, my misery driving him away.
I’ve nothing left to lose.
They stand, clapping wildly, a cacophony that increases until I fear my head will explode. Sneering faces surround me, made monstrous by twisted minds. I struggle to breathe as the snakes rise to the hiss of his words. I shrink into my seat. The cobras all around stiffen and puff up.
I inhale deeply. Block out the noise. I have to stay calm to show them, to speak their language, to fight violence with violence.
To kill to stop killing.
I stand too, though I’m a silent, empty vessel. It’s my heart that they tore out, leaving me the same as them. This is all I can give her, my last gift: bestowing my daughter’s life and death with meaning. I kiss the gold pendant bearing her name that hangs around my neck.
I focus. Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth. I’m back at the shooting range, surrounded only by dull grey blocks. The cheering fades. My target is directly in front of me, just a thick piece of paper flapping in the breeze. It bears the heavy black outline of a head and torso, bright red circles marking the spot.
My well-rehearsed movements are too slick to stop. I raise the gun, its cool plastic light and comfortable in my hand. Take aim. Hold my breath at the end of the inhale.
I squeeze the trigger to the sound of screaming, sending out a bullet that will reverberate through the decades to come.