“A child is born on the killing floor.” — Anaïs Mitchell

December 9th, 10:00 PM

When Sophia Weston heard about the massacre, she locked herself in her dorm room and cried. She had just finished her last final of the fall semester a few hours before and was sitting at her desk, flipping between Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, absorbing and affirming the post-finals bliss felt by all of her friends.

One of the news outlets she followed tweeted a link to their live coverage of the massacre, and she clicked it, filling her screen with footage of mothers crying and EMTs trying to carry body bags that were designed to hold the corpses of adults, but became lopsided when loaded with first-graders. The death toll came to 20 children, six teachers, and the gunman himself, who committed suicide when police arrived.

Sophia shut her laptop and locked her door, then took off her glasses, laid her head in her arms, and sobbed. She was deeply sensitive and had the misfortune of having been born in a time when blissful ignorance was almost unachievable and sorrows could reach out from half a world away demanding to be felt. She often found herself paralyzed rather than moved by her pity, surrounded by the innumerable heads of suffering and unwilling to strike at any of them for fear that two would grow in its place. Her friends often teased her for tearing up during pet adoption ads, but Sophia felt this to be indicative of a defect in others, not herself. She had suffered as much as anyone, but for her the wounds, rather than hardening into scars or calluses, seemed to heal over with the soft skin of an infant.

She heard the jiggling of her door handle, followed by a knock. She knew who it was, so she dried her eyes and opened the door. It was Gabe, and showing up at her door at ten o’clock at night, he could only want one thing. Halfway through her sophomore year of college, Sophia was far from a virgin. There had been two guys in high school. Gabe—slim, tanned, soccer player Gabe who worked in the campus mailroom and had pressed her against a wall at the semester’s first frat party—was the third since she’d gotten to college. It had been the same with all of them. Sex was a miraculous means of mutual self-revelation until it became expected and routine, a stand-in for something that wasn’t there instead of an expression of something that was.

Seeming not even to notice the red puffiness of her tear-streaked face, Gabriel kissed her without a word and began to tug at her clothing. Sophia let him remove the oversized T-shirt and sweatpants she had changed into after her test, feeling that it was easier to cooperate than to argue. Turning him down would upset him, and there were enough people feeling bad at the moment. Gabriel stepped back, unbuttoning his plaid shirt as he surveyed her slim, naked body. “My, my. You certainly are blessed,” he said.

When he finished undressing, Sophia allowed him to lead her over to her bed. Or perhaps she led him. Questions of agency had become confused—she still would have said that she was going along with it for his sake, but she also found herself wanting him so badly she was trembling. He had her kneel on the bed facing away from him with her face pressed down into a pillow. As she felt his hands caressing her hips, she began to cry, allowing tears that had never been far from her eyes to spill over once again. He pushed into her, and she let out a sound somewhere between a moan and a sob. It must not have sounded like a sob because Gabe took no notice.

By the time he had finished, Sophia had stopped crying. She felt as if all the sorrows of the tear-soaked world had coalesced in the pit of her stomach.

December 12th, 10:00 AM

Having followed the giant, unlit Christmas star on top of City Hall to the center of town, Sophia parked her 11-year-old VW Beetle in front of Harry D’s Gun Emporium and walked to the front door. Before she went inside, she took a deep, shuddering breath.

She had gotten home from college two days earlier. That night, Gabe changed his relationship status on Facebook. Sophia didn’t bother texting him. What would be the point? They’d never put a label on it, and even if they had, labels were ill-fitting, arbitrary things. Nothing stayed in its place. If anything even had a place.

She turned off her phone, slept until noon, and spent the next day eating empty calories and binge-watching old sitcoms on her laptop. She joined her laughter to that of the invisible chorus, but by the end of each episode, she’d forgotten all the jokes. Okay. This was workable. She’d simply tender her resignation from the universe. That lasted for one day.

“Sophie,” her father had said, hovering in the doorway of her room on his crutches, “You can’t just mope around the house like this for five weeks.”

At college, she’d introduced herself as Sophia since the first day. Sophie was a little girl; Sophia was a strong, independent woman. Some people still called her Sophie anyway.

“Maybe not,” she replied from the nest of blankets and empty snack bags she had shored against her ruin, “But I can give it the old college try.”

“Honey, I know you’re feeling upset about everything that’s happened, and I don’t blame you, but you can’t just give up. For one thing, it’s selfish. And it’s just not the way the world works. I wish you’d taken one of those intensive winter classes or gotten a job or something.”

“Well, it’s too late now. Registration closed weeks ago, and all the seasonal work’s been snapped up. If I wanted a job, I should’ve applied over Thanksgiving.”

“Well,” he’d said, “I know Harry Davenport is looking for help down at the gun store. It’s probably the last place you’d want me to send you, but I’m sure he’d love to have you. You’ll get plenty of hours down there, and he’s kind of a hardass, but he’s a good, honest man. A straight shooter, you might say.” He chuckled to himself.

The morning after their talk, she woke up at 8:00, straightened her hair, applied a small amount of makeup, dressed presentably, made herself breakfast, and drove to the gun store.

Before college, she’d gone target shooting with her father often, and she’d been in the store several times, most memorably when he’d let her pick out a rifle for her 18th birthday. On those occasions, the clientele had been mostly blue-collar types who wore unkempt beards and worn jeans, smoking cigarettes and exchanging coarse jokes. The store itself was a single large, square room. Long, waist-high glass display cases, the glass yellowed by decades of cigarette smoke, formed a U-shape that opened toward entering customers, paralleling the walls on three sides. The walls themselves were hung with rifles and shotguns while the center of the room was filled with freestanding gun racks which left just enough room to walk around and between them. The register sat on the counter just to the right of the front door.

Sophia adjusted her dark gray sweater dress, checked her black stockings for runs, and stepped into the gun emporium. The low heels of her tall black boots clicked on the tile floor, which was covered with a filthy slush tracked in from outside by work boots, snow boots, combat boots, and cowboy boots.. The place was packed. She had never seen more than ten customers in the store on her previous visits, but at first glance, she estimated at least forty. The crowd was also far more diverse than she remembered. There were women, minorities, and even white guys in dress shoes and suits, rubbing padded shoulders with grimy jean jackets. The size and makeup of the group confused Sophia until she remembered the massacre. The world felt a little less safe than it had three days prior.

The Democrats had threatened to introduce a new assault weapons ban. Fear was the great equalizer.

Sophia had always felt awkward in crowds, so she stood to the side while she looked for Harry, who she remembered as a tall, clean-shaven man of about 50 who had maintained a lean, powerful physique, fighting the atrophy of his muscles even as he gave in to the inevitable recession of his hairline. His hair was not gray, but rather a premature though still somehow virile shock of white that reminded Sophia of Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner. She spotted him behind the display cases, dressed like his more formal customers in slacks and an Oxford shirt but moving like a captain going down with his ship, who, having sent the bridge crew to the lifeboats, is trying to man every station himself.

He was waiting on six people at once with a precision that seemed almost choreographed. He would reach down into the display case or back to the wall behind him without looking and pull out the exact gun a customer had requested with one hand while retrieving paperwork for another customer with the other hand, all while giving advice to a third customer. He locked his eyes on each target in succession while talking around the cigarette tucked into the side of his mouth. His sole employee—Max, if she remembered correctly—stood behind the counter on the other side of the store, mirroring Harry’s frantic pace but without the same graceful economy to his movements. Sophia leaned against the counter by the register and waited for a lull.

After about ten minutes, Harry came back to the register to put some money in the drawer. “Excuse me, Mr. Davenport?” Sophia said, her voice coming out smaller than she’d have liked.

“Harry,” he said, “Nobody calls me that. For you, I’d recommend a revolver. Middle case against the back wall. Talk to Max if you have any more questions.” He had a clipped way of speaking that was probably left over from his time in the military. For him, words were tools, no different from a screwdriver or his own two hands.

“Sorry…Harry. Um, actually, I’m not looking to buy a gun. I, um…”

“Well there are about a dozen people waiting who do want to buy guns.”

“Yes. Of course. Sorry. Maybe I could help you with that. I was wondering if you possibly had a job for me here.”

Harry’s eyes bored into her, silently asking what possible reason a college girl would have for wanting to work in a gun store.

“I’m Sophia Weston,” she added hastily. “I used to come in here with my dad, Elroy Weston.”

“El Weston? Why didn’t you say so? We haven’t seen much of him lately, though.”

“He doesn’t get out as much since the injury, but he sends his regards. Told me you could probably use some help.”

“Oh, we can use all the help we can get. But are you sure you want to work here?” He looked her up and down. “What are you? Hard up for money?”

“No, I…” Sophia felt tears pressing against the backs of her eyes. She suppressed them ruthlessly. She didn’t want to be here, but then, she didn’t particularly want to be anywhere. Now that she was here, it was better than anywhere else. “I just needed something to do. Until school starts up again, that is.”

“Fair enough. You know your guns pretty well, as I recall, and we’ve certainly got our backs against the wall here. How’s ten bucks an hour, all cash, sound?” Harry asked.

“Sounds great.”

“Good.” He turned and cupped a hand around his mouth to shout across the store. “Hey Max, we’ve got a prospective employee. I’m gonna take a few minutes and see if she’s got what it takes. You handle the customers.”

The total impossibility of this directive seemed to bring Max to the brink of a nervous breakdown. He threw up his arms helplessly and opened his mouth to protest, but saw that Harry wasn’t looking in his direction anymore and turned with resignation to face two dozen pairs of inquiring eyes.

Harry beckoned for Sophia to follow him and led her around the inside of the U formed by the cases. He walked in a perfectly straight line, rightly assuming that the customers would get out of his way, while Sophia was left to weave apologetically between them in his wake. First he pointed to a hunting rifle hanging on the wall. “What’s this?” he asked.

“Remington 770. 30.06. Pretty typical deer rifle,” she said. Sophia had never been hunting, due to her unwillingness to hurt animals, but her father had been an avid hunter.

“And what’s it for?” he asked.

“Putting food on the table.” She knew this game. He led her to another part of the store where he pointed out two small pistols on the top shelf of the display case, a revolver and an automatic.

“What’re these?”

Sophia searched her memory, trying to visualize the various pistols that were practically spilling out of her father’s gun safe.

“A Ruger LCR, 38 special, rated for plus P, and…a Kimber Solo nine millimeter.”

“And what’re they for?”

“Muggers, rapists, and carjackers,” she responded by rote. He led her to one of the freestanding run racks in the middle of the floor and pointed out a black, pump-action shotgun.

“How about this one?”

“It’s a Mossburg 500 12-gauge with some tactical furniture.” Before he could ask, she added its function. “That one’s for home invaders.” Harry gave a little grunt of affirmation and pointed up at two assault rifles on the back wall, an AK-47 and an AR-15.

“And what about these?” Harry asked, glee creeping into his voice.

“These are for any government son of a bitch who tries to take the other ones away,” Sophia said emphatically. The call and response of guns and their uses was a litany universally known among gun enthusiasts. Sophia had known the whole thing by the age of nine when her father first took her to the range and let her shoot a .22. His buddies who frequented the range had taught it to her and made her repeat it over and over again, roaring with laughter at hearing a cute little girl say “son of a bitch.” Harry was killing two birds with one stone, testing both her technical knowledge of firearms and her ideological commitment to gun culture.

Although she could list the functions of various types of guns to Harry’s satisfaction, for Sophia, they all shared the same purpose—punching holes in paper. She enjoyed the feeling of recoil and the smell of powder and the satisfying sight of bullet holes clustering at the center of a target, but she didn’t like to remember that she was training herself to exercise lethal force.

She’d gotten good at faking it, though. For people like Harry and her dad’s shooting buddies, firearms and NRA rhetoric were a package deal. Harry grunted his approval and ground out his cigarette in one of the dozen or so ashtrays scattered along the tops of the display cases.

He pointed back toward the front entrance. “You see that?” Sophia turned and saw an eight-foot-long black wooden board mounted above the doorway with letters carved into it and painted red. “Tell me what that says.”

“Whoever does not have a sword should sell his robe and buy one. Luke 22:36,” she read aloud.

“I made that myself in my shed at home. Just finished it last week. Straight from the mouth of Jesus Christ. We’re doing good work here. God’s work. We’re making the weak strong, so good people like you and me don’t have to be at the mercy of psychopaths like that bastard who shot up that school. You’re hired.” Then he gripped Sophia’s hand in a handshake so firm it ground her knucklebones against each other.

“Max,” he called without looking away from Sophia, “We’ve got ourselves a new employee! Show her how to do paperwork and record sales. If a customer has a question she can’t answer, she’ll come to you.”

“Okay, boss. I’ll get right on that,” Max replied. Needing to say nothing further, Harry turned on his heel and walked straight through the mass of customers back to his post behind the display cases. “I’ve got nothing but time back here,” Max added petulantly as soon as he saw that Harry was out of earshot.

Sophia stepped behind the counter and offered Max her hand. “Hi,” she said, hesitantly extending her still-aching hand for more punishment, “I’m Sophia.”

“Nice to meet you, Sophia,” he said. When he clasped her hand, she saw there had been no need to fear. Max’s handshake brought to mind the phrase “wet noodle,” the poorest possible score on those arcade machines that tested grip strength.

Max and Harry both smoked incessantly and wore Glock 17s openly on their hips, but the similarities ended there. Max was older, she guessed about 65, and his longish hair and sloppily trimmed goatee exhibited a random distribution of black, white, and gray. He stood about five foot seven, a good six inches shorter than Harry and about the same height as Sophia in her two-inch heels. He wore faded jeans with a large rip over the right knee and a green surplus army jacket.

For the next 15 minutes, he walked her through how to fill out the ATF and State Police forms, write receipts, and file sales and lay-away payments in the store’s internal records. He spoke in a rambling fashion, using words as meaningless filler while he searched for the next item in a list of disorganized thoughts.

“Is there anything else I should know?” Sophia asked when she was confident that she understood all the paperwork.

“Like what?”

“Well, do you sell anything other than guns that I should know about?”

“Well…um. Good question. There’s…we sell knives, but not too many people come in to buy them, so…I guess if…yeah. If anybody comes in asking about knives, just send them over to…me. Yeah. I think that’d work out. Work out well…there’s…pepper spray, but we’ve only got one kind of that…wait, do we? Yeah, we do…oh, and handcuffs.”

“Handcuffs? Who buys those? Like for law enforcement?”

“Law enforcement or…um…recreational purposes,” Max said, blushing and breaking eye contact.

“Recre—? Oh…aren’t there stores for that kind of thing?”

“They feel more comfortable here.”

An awkward silence followed, and when it showed no signs of ending, she walked away and took up her place behind the counter.

Her first customer was there to meet her, but thankfully, little effort was required on her part. He was a regular who was buying his fourth AR-15 in anticipation of a COMWEC situation, which, he explained, stood for COmplete Meltdown of WEstern Civilization. He then went on to detail the other measures he’d taken to ensure his survival. Sophia wondered how a man who lived on his own planned to operate four rifles simultaneously to defend his backyard bunker against foreign invaders or neighbors who wanted to plunder his supplies, but she figured it wouldn’t be polite to ask. She got him started on paperwork that he’d filled out a hundred times already while he haggled with Harry over a handgun he wanted to sell back to the store. He’d paid $450 for it and was asking for $300, but Harry mercilessly battered him down to $150.

As Sophia finished making out the receipt, the bell above the front entrance rang and she looked up to see the new customer. A man Max’s age with a filthy Santa Claus beard wearing an army jacket that—except for being in much worse condition—was identical to Max’s, stumbled through the door. No sooner was he through it than he lurched to the left, knocking over a magazine rack full of back issues of Guns and Ammo before falling to the slush-covered floor. As he struggled to get up, Sophia saw that the right sleeve of his jacket had been stitched closed and sewn to the shoulder, bending at the elbow. He was missing half his arm.

“Max!” the man slurred, stretching the “a” out over several seconds as he struggled to his knees. “Sorry about your magazines. C’mon! Take off early! Let’s hit the bars! You can tell me whatever happened with that gook bitch kept following us around saying you knocked her up. It’ll be like back in Saigon.” He tried to stand, but a magazine slid out from under his foot, and he fell back, smacking his head hard on the tile. The bum stared up at the ceiling, his body shaking with what Sophia initially took for sobs but which turned out to be laughter. Then, still lying on his back, he started to sing, “Choppers flying over trees. Pilots doing what they please. Dropping bombs on refugees. Napalm sticks to kids,” elongating the vowel in “kids” the same way he’d done with Max’s name.

While everyone in the store stared, Harry strode to the entrance with characteristic purposefulness and grabbed the intruder by the collar, yanking him to his feet and marching him toward the front door. Harry nudged the door open with his toe, and as the bell rang, he flung the man out the door, where he landed headfirst in a snowbank that the plow had deposited that morning. For a moment, it seemed to Sophia that he was actually considering staying there, buried to the waist in dirty snow, but after a few seconds, he pulled himself out and staggered off down the street.

“What was that?” Sophia asked Harry as the hubbub of the store returned to normal.

“That’s Charlie. He’s an old drunk who’s fucked in the head and has tried to steal from my store more than once. He’s also a convicted felon, which means he can’t even own a gun and has no business setting foot in here. I’m not even sure what he’d do with a gun if he did manage to steal one. Hopefully blow his goddamn brains out. Probably sell it for smack. Just get back to work.”

Sophia turned to her next customer, a short, balding man in a business suit, and began to talk him through the buying process. He was practically shaking, looking around at the instruments of death and the rough men who love them.

“I don’t even believe in guns. I always said I’d never own one, but the world’s just gotten too scary,” he said. She had just finished selling him a Ruger GP100 when the phone rang. She answered it.

“Harry D’s Gun Emporium. How may I help you?”

“How does it feel to be a merchant of death at Christmastime?” a shrill voice shrieked at her so loudly she had to hold the receiver away from her ear. “The blood of those children is on your hands! They’re dead because of you, Mr. NRA. I hope you’re proud of yourself! How do you sleep at night knowing…”

Sophia hung up.


For all installments of “A Cocked and Locked Christmas,” click here.