December 24th, 8:20 AM

Oh God, I’m late! I’m late! Sophia burst out of her bathroom and rushed back to her bedroom to get dressed. She put on her glasses and checked the time on her phone, which only magnified her panic. Oh, no, I’m going to be late for work!

She had spent the morning throwing up—probably thanks to her near-constant exposure to secondhand smoke and a steady diet of the greasy chili-dogs from the diner across the street from the gun shop—but had felt better almost immediately and decided not to call off.

She put on a pair of jeans, black combat boots, a tight off-white sweater, and a fitted green army jacket she’d bought at Anthropologie after her second day of work.

On the way to the gun emporium, she stopped to help fund some oppressive Middle Eastern regime by filling her gas tank and watched the soot of exhaust and industry tarnish the previous night’s snow as her hand went numb on the gas pump nozzle. The star above City Hall was lit and she followed it to work, arriving at 8:50 and parking in her usual spot. Even though the store wasn’t due to open for ten minutes, she had to shoulder her way through a crowd of people waiting outside. Harry and Max looked up and greeted her.

“Don’t these people have anything better to do on Christmas Eve? Jesus Christ!” Sophia said by way of greeting. She’d have been terrified to say anything like that when she first started, but after more than two weeks of workdays that ranged from ten to twelve hours, Sophia and Max were griping together like old soldiers at a VFW.

Harry usually refused to acknowledge complaints from employees, even those made in jest and for the sake of morale, but this time he responded.

“Hey. You know what that is out there? That’s money in my pocket. In our pockets. We’ll be closing at six o’clock sharp and you get tomorrow off, but I need you two to be on your game until then,” he said before disappearing into the back room.

“Oh gee, thanks,” Max said, according to his usual practice of addressing sarcastic remarks to Harry whenever he wasn’t around, “We only have to work nine hours today. Whoop-dee-fuckin’-doo.” Sophia laughed.

“Don’t bitch. At least he has to pay you overtime. I’m off the books!”

“Wouldn’t dream of bitching. I’m just glad Harry keeps a decrepit old vet like me around.”

Actually, Sophia had come to find that didn’t mind the long hours. She actually enjoyed them. They kept her mind off of things she didn’t want to think about, like dead first-graders and Gabe. She also looked forward to seeing her co-workers every day. She and Max had developed a deep sense of camaraderie that was moving toward genuine friendship, while a healthy mutual respect had grown up between her and Harry. The job made her feel stronger, too.

Harry reemerged from the back and strode to the front door. He gave a thumbs up, holding it until Max and Sophia took their places behind the counter and returned it. He then pointed wordlessly up at the Bible verse on the board above the door before flipping the “Closed” sign to “Open” and darting back to his own position.

Customers streamed in the door. Many were anxious to buy their piece-of-mind early so they could get on with their last-minute Christmas shopping. For others, this was their Christmas shopping. That seemed to be the case with Sophia’s first customers of the day: a couple in their early twenties, the man leading his girlfriend by the hand, not affectionately, but as if she was incapable of finding the way on her own. She was short and plump with a pretty face marred by acne, and he was tall and beefy with a scraggly blond goatee and bad teeth. Sophia disliked him the moment she saw him.

“Hi. My name’s Sophia. Anything I can help you find today?”

“You work here?” he asked.

“Yes, sir. I do,” she said, although her thoughts were more along the lines of Well what’d you think I was doing behind the counter, dipshit?

“Ok. I’m Dale. She’s Jess. Can I see that big one up there?” he asked, almost salivating as he pointed to a large, belt-fed machine gun sitting out of reach on a shelf just below the ceiling.

“Only if you’re seriously considering buying it. It’s $35,000.” His eyes widened. “Then sorry, we only take it down for serious buyers. It’s a pain to get it down and we wouldn’t want it to fall and be damaged. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“Whatever. Yeah. She’s looking to buy her first gun.” Sophia immediately looked away from the man and toward his girlfriend.

“Oh really? What kind of gun were you considering, ma’am?” Sophia asked.

“Um…I don’t really…” she began before Dale cut her off.

“She doesn’t know much about guns. I’m gettin’ her one for Christmas,” he said.

Sophia had had a few couples come in over the past few weeks, mostly regulars who were married and who insisted, in light of the recent tragedy, that their wives had to start carrying. They always made a point of showing off their manly knowledge of firearms.

“Well,” Sophia said, still talking to the girlfriend, “were you planning on carrying it or keeping it for home defense?”

“It’d be nice if I could do both,” she answered meekly.

“And have you ever shot a gun before?”

“No, she hasn’t,” Dale interrupted.

“Okay then,” Sophia said, “I think a small revolver would be best for you. Something light with a two or three-inch barrel. You could carry it in a pocket holster inside your purse and put it in a drawer safe at night.”

“I don’t like revolvers,” Dale said, sounding as stupid as it is possible for a human being to sound.

“Well you’re not buying a gun for yourself. You’re buying one for her,” Sophia reminded him, trying to keep her voice patient.

“How about that one there?” he said, indicating a heavy Remington 1911 R1 pistol in the next case over. Sophia took it out without a word. Dale reached for it, but she handed it to Jess.

“Ma’am, could you try to rack the slide for me?” Sophia asked. Jess tugged at it again and again, changing grips and angles several times before finally setting it down, red in the face.

“No,” she said, laughing a little, “That’s hard.”

“That’s why I think a revolver would be good for you. There’s no slide to rack. Plus, it’s much simpler for a beginner. No safety or magazine to worry about. Just load, point, and shoot. The only controls on it are the hammer, the cylinder release, and the trigger. And some of them don’t even have hammers,” Sophia said. She took a Smith & Wesson Model 642 Airweight hammerless revolver from the case. Dale reached for it, but she gently pushed his hand away. The big man fumed. Sophia demonstrated how to load, unload, and fire the wheelgun, then passed it to Jess and walked her through the same steps. She was just starting to get the hang of it when Dale spoke up again.

“Come on, babe, you don’t want that. It only holds five shots. That one I showed you holds one in the chamber and seven in the clip. This girl doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

Sophia could no longer contain herself.

“I’m sure those extra three rounds will do her a lot of good when she has to use it and forgets to take the safety off. And that’s if she even has it with her, which is a big ‘if’ because I know I wouldn’t want to be carrying that three-pound monster around in my purse. Now, if you’re not going to take your girlfriend’s wishes or even her safety into account, then please step out for a minute and let her choose, and I don’t care if you’re  paying. So far, you seem intent on buying a gun for yourself and calling it her Christmas gift.”

Dale’s mouth gaped stupidly and Sophia couldn’t help delivering the final blow. “And it’s called a magazine. Not a clip.”

He was stunned, humiliated at being shown up by a college girl. For ten seconds or more he just stared at her, unable to speak. He glanced over at Jess, but seeing no sympathy in her eyes, he turned furiously back to Sophia.

“Listen here, bitch,” he said, loudly enough that Max, Harry, and all the other customers could hear him. Max got there first. He grabbed Dale from behind and spun him around to face him, then filled one fist with Dale’s sweatshirt and the other with Dale’s neck and forced him back against the display cases, bending him backwards so that the hard, metal edge of the case dug into his spine.

Up until that moment, Sophia couldn’t have imagined being frightened of small, unassuming Max, but now his face had twisted itself into something out of a nightmare. It was the kind of snarl that, on a pit bull’s face, would make a child scared of dogs for life. Dale whimpered and, for a moment, Sophia was actually afraid that Max was going to kill him.

“Apologize,” Max said without unclenching his teeth.

“I’m sorry,” he practically sobbed. Max looked over at Harry, who gave him an approving nod, at which Max relaxed his facial muscles ever so slightly.

“Good. Now get the fuck out,” Sophia said. It sounded strange hearing something so assertive spoken in her own voice. She turned to Jess. “Do you still want to buy a gun?” Jess nodded. “Good. You stay.” Sophia turned back to Dale. “You can wait in the car.”

Dale turned and walked toward the door, still too shocked to assume any appearance of dignity or outrage on his way out. Jess gaped for a moment, but by the time Dale was reaching for the door handle, she’d recovered enough to shout, “Yeah, wait in the car, you fuckin’ manbaby.”

“Fuck you, bitch!” he called over his shoulder. He knew better than to slam the door, though.

For a few seconds, stunned silence prevailed throughout the shop, but then the hubbub of the clientele started up again. Jess began gushing out an apology, her outrage giving way to embarrassment. “I’m so sorry for how he acted, sir. And you too, ma’am. He just gets this way. It’s how he is. He’ll be hell to deal with at home, but he needed to be taken down a peg, and I’m glad you did it. You’re a real gentleman.”

Max blushed and, still too charged with adrenaline to speak calmly, nodded and headed to the register.

Sophia leaned in. “You said ‘hell to deal with.’ You don’t mean he’ll hit you, do you?” she whispered, already reaching for her phone to Google the nearest shelter.

“Him? Ha! He wouldn’t dream of it.”

Eventually, Jess did decide on the Airweight. Sophia helped her with her paperwork, picked out a good holster for her, and sent her to go check out.

“Since you’re a first-time owner,” Sophia heard Max say. He’d calmed down considerably. “I’d recommend you buy one box of this. It’s premium defense ammo, hollow points, to load it with when you’re carrying it or keeping it at home. Then you’ll wanna get two or three boxes of cheap ammo to practice with. The defense rounds are more expensive, but hopefully you’ll only ever need one box of them.”

“Can I see a box of those?”

“Sure. You said you were planning on using it for carry and home defense, right? Or just carry? Or was it both?” Max turned around and searched the shelf behind him.

“Well, I was hoping to do both, but now I think I might just use it to shoot my jackass boyfriend.” Max chuckled and handed her a box.


“Yep. In case somebody breaks in. Or in case that dickhead gets a little too handsy when you’re not in the mood, you know?”

“Defense is good, but do they work for American offense, too?” she asked, a slight gleam in her eye. The embarrassment had dissipated.

“What, you mean like if he forgets to do the dishes?” Max and Jess burst into laughter.

Sophia wandered over to the register, drawn to their strong, defiant jollity, as Jess opened her box to examine the bullets.

Sophia found herself admiring the vicious hollowed-out tips that would cause the bullets to open like blossoms within whomever they struck, shredding their insides while theoretically leaving the outside world untouched.


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

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1
  2. Part 2