December 24th, 6:00 PM

The regulars who found themselves lonely and with nothing better to do on Christmas Eve had trickled in later in the day, but had left when they realized that the place was too packed to stand around and shoot the shit. Now the store was empty, and not a creature was stirring except for Harry, Max, and Sophia. The rest of the day had been busy, but uneventful other than one incident around five o’clock when three Persian-looking guys had come in to ask for directions. They had left after realizing no one could understand their broken English. Around the same time, Sophia had noticed Charlie pacing out on the sidewalk, arm shoved deep into his coat. He’d made three false starts toward the front door, but stopped about three paces short of the handle each time before finally wandering off in the other direction. She hadn’t bothered mentioning it to Harry. Clearly, he’d scared the bum off good and proper.

At exactly six o’clock, in the fullness of time, Harry cleared all the customers out and placed the “Closed” sign on the door. Then he turned around and smiled, the corners of his mouth stretching as far as they would go. This was new. All week, Sophia had seen nothing more than a slight twitch at the right edge of his upper lip.

“Lady and gentleman,” he said animatedly, “I’ve owned this store for 15 years and I have never seen anything like the last two weeks. We’ve still got four business days left this month and we’ve already blown my previous monthly sales record out of the water. Don’t get me wrong, it was a tragedy, but massacres sure are good for business. Wakes people up. Makes them realize what the world’s really like and what they need to do about it. We helped a lot of people this week, turned a lot of victims into victors, and I’m proud it was my store that made it possible. You should be proud, too. You kept out the riffraff, helped out the customers, and exhibited grace under pressure. Both of you have done outstanding work, and we’re gonna have a little Christmas celebration.”

Harry disappeared into the break room and beckoned them to follow him. When they did, they found him pouring the last of three big mugs of eggnog.

“Now, seeing as how we’ve basically just won the Super Bowl of firearm sales, I thought I’d present the two of you with these in lieu of a game ball,” he said, handing the mugs to Max and Sophia. “And you know what you do with the game ball, right?” Sophia recognized from his tone that this was the setup to a joke, but she’d never heard him tell a joke before. His usual utilitarian approach to language seemed to be taking on frills and flourishes springing from his sudden and indestructible optimism.

“You spike it!” Harry said after a few seconds pause, producing a flask from his coat pocket. He poured a generous stream into his and Max’s mugs, but Sophia covered hers with her hand.

“No thanks. I’m a lightweight and I have to drive. Better make mine a virgin.”

“Alright, then,” Harry said, “While you’re enjoying your virgin eggnog, why don’t you put on some music?” She retrieved a small, wireless speaker from her handbag, synced it to her iPhone, and pulled up a Christmas Pandora station. The opening chimes of “Jingle Bell Rock” blasted from the speakers far too loudly and she muttered an apology as she adjusted the volume. They all took seats around the breakroom table.

Well, here we are, Sophia thought. The world certainly is unpredictable. She sat, swapping stories with Harry and Max, while behind the conversation she wondered what they could possibly share in common, two old war veterans and a college girl. She thought about it as they talked and laughed like equals, and then it came to her. They all were, or had at one time been, afraid. Fear was real. Suffering was real. And fear and suffering made everything else real. They had all come to the knowledge that the world was going to hell and that chaos must be met with strength. They had made each other strong, able to sit together only after each proved able to stand alone. And so they sat, three bastions, three fortresses built upon solid rock, and waited while “Jingle Bell Rock” gave way to “Please Come Home for Christmas,” which in turn gave way to “Good King Wenceslas.”

Not in silence—there was no pause in their talk or laughter—but waiting just the same. Waiting for what? Sophia wondered. A COMWEC situation?

There was a sound of shattering glass.

Harry, Max, and Sophia jolted out of their seats and through the break room door into the showroom. There, they saw Charlie, bleeding from the cuts he’d suffered climbing through the broken glass of the front door as he leaned against the counter. His left and only hand clutched at something in the recesses of his tattered army jacket. Sophia stood by, unarmed, while Harry and Max swept back their coats and seized the textured grips of their Glocks, sliding them from their holsters. Each held his gun ready at his hip, each with his trigger finger resting, twitching, along the outside of the trigger guard.

“Get on your knees, Charlie!” Harry yelled, “Take your hand out of your coat and get on your knees! Now!”

“I’m sorry about the glass, Harry,” Charlie slurred, shifting his grip on whatever was under his coat.

“Dammit, Charlie, don’t make us shoot you! We’ll do it!” Max said, glancing over at Harry as he tried to control the note of panic in his voice. “Get your…take your hand out of your damn coat!’

“Okay! Okay!” Charlie cried, his voice becoming shrill. He shrugged his right shoulder to throw back his coat on that side and swept his left arm out to reveal that he was holding a beat-up sawed-off double-barrel shotgun. His finger hung limp inside the trigger guard. Then Charlie dropped to his knees, shaking, the barrels pointing at a spot on the floor just short of Harry, Max, and Sophia’s feet.

Harry and Max raised their guns and placed their fingers on the triggers and yelled at Charlie to drop it while Sophia stood paralyzed, disgusted with herself for once again playing the role of passive observer and recipient of whatever came.

“I’m gonna count to three, and if you don’t drop it, I’m gonna blow your godforsaken brains all over the floor and then mop them up right along with all the other filth that gets tracked in here,” Harry said. He wasn’t yelling anymore. His voice had taken on a steely calm that was even more frightening.


Harry D stepped forward, master of all he surveyed, his body powerful and graceful under his clothes, his shooting stance and grip flawless. This was it, the moment around which all the gun range and gun shop talk revolved. The justifiable self-defense shooting. The madman with a gun.

“Shoot until he’s not a threat anymore and ask questions later. Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six,” her father had told her before the injury weakened him.


The barrel of Max’s Glock began to tremble and Sophia could see tears forming in his eyes. Harry switched to a one-handed grip and stepped toward Charlie again, pointing the gun at a downward angle with the barrel less than a foot from the kneeling man’s head. Suddenly, it didn’t look to Sophia like a self-defense shooting. Charlie, in his ragged clothes with his hand and forehead bleeding from the broken glass, had not stopped trying to stammer through his sobs, but had not yet been able to put together a coherent phrase. Blood, snot, and melting snow ran in streaks down his face. It pierced her heart like a sword.

“Harry,” Max said meekly, “Harry, he’s not even pointing it…it’s pointed at the ground, at…at the floor. Harry, just take it…take it off of him. You don’t need to, I mean, you don’t have to shoot him, Harry.”

Sophia noticed that fresh snow had fallen and was still falling thickly, covering the cold, soiled mess outside and leaving it purest white. Only the floor of the Gun Emporium preserved any of the gray slushy layer that had covered the whole world just an hour before. Suddenly, she remembered that her father had never said anything about an armed society being a polite society or about shooting first and asking questions later. All that talk had come from his shooting buddies, but, by some trick of memory, she had attributed it to him. She remembered him clearly now, standing off to the side looking concerned as the guys at the range taught her their catechism, then wordlessly leading her away from them after a few minutes.

“It’s good to know your way around a gun, Sophie,” her father had said on the drive home, “but these guys are bullshitters, and you can’t let the bullshitters bullshit you. Doesn’t do anybody any good.”

And then Sophia noticed the music. With a serenity that, to an observer, would have suggested either total obliviousness or mystical transcendence, Sophia stepped forward. Max lowered his gun as she crossed his line of fire.

“Harry…Harry. Listen…listen to me, he’s…Harry,” Max said.


Harry’s finger tightened on the trigger as his tongue pressed against his clenched front teeth and his lips pursed to complete the lethal syllable.

Sophia stepped between Harry and Charlie in the same moment that Max holstered his gun and screamed, “HARRY, STOP POINTING THAT FUCKING GUN AT MY FRIEND!”

Harry looked up to meet Sophia’s glare, her stomach interposed between the Glock and the sobbing, broken Charlie, and for a moment Harry’s eyes refused to soften. “For Chrissakes,” Max pleaded. Harry looked away and holstered his gun. Sophia stepped out of the way.

“Give me that damn thing,” Harry growled, wrenching the shotgun from Charlie’s hand and breaking it open. It wasn’t loaded. Sophia’s stomach leaped for joy.

“I’m sorry about the glass, Harry. It was an accident. I just wanted to see if you’d wanna buy this shotgun. They’ve got a bed for me at the shelter, but I need money for a bus ticket,” Charlie mumbled, still visibly shaking.

Harry looked ready to strike him, but he cast a glance back at Max, who nodded gently at him. Harry turned to Charlie, then swept back his coat again. Charlie whimpered and shriveled into a fetal position, but got back up on his knees when he saw that Harry was just reaching for his wallet.

“Get up,” Harry said, hauling Charlie to his feet. He counted out several bills from his wallet and thrust them into Charlie’s hand. “Here. Here’s $300. Now get out of here.” Sophia had seen a customer bring in a similar gun a week earlier. Harry had given him 300 bucks.

At first, Charlie looked as though he were about to throw his arms around Harry, but instead he pocketed the money, muttered “Thank you; bless you,” and shuffled to the entrance, stepping carefully around the broken glass. The bell rang as he stepped out into the night, whistling nervously the song that had just ended. Seconds later, he was out of sight. Soon after that, his footprints had been covered over.

The phone rang.

All three of them—Sophia, Max, and Harry—stood looking at each other, unsure of how to proceed with something as basic as answering the phone. “Snoopy’s Christmas” began playing on the speaker. The phone rang again. And again.

Sophia answered it.

“Harry D’s Gun Emporium.”

“Christmas Eve! Aren’t you ashamed! The night that Christ was born and here you are, ready to receive him with blood on your hands!”

“Merry Christmas, ma’am,” Sophia said. Then she hung up.


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

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1
  2. Part 2
  3. Part 3