When Loo was twelve years old her father taught her how to shoot a gun. He had a case full of them in his room, others hidden in boxes around the house. Loo had seen them at night, when he took the guns apart and cleaned them at the kitchen table, oiling and polishing and brushing for hours. She was forbidden to touch them and so she watched from a distance, learning what she could about their secrets, until the day when she blew out birthday candles on twelve chocolate Ring Dings, arranged on a plate in the shape of a star, and Hawley opened the wooden chest in their living room and put the gift she had been waiting for — her grandfather’s rifle — into her arms.
Now Loo waited in the hallway as her father pulled down a box of ammunition from the front closet. He took out some .22 rimfires — long-rifle and Magnum — as well as nine-millimeter Hornady 115-grain. The bullets rattled inside their cardboard containers as he slid them into a bag. Loo took note of every detail, as if her father’s choices were part of a test she would later have to pass. Hawley grabbed a bolt-action Model 5 Remington, a Winchester Model 52 and his Colt Python.
Whenever he left the house, Loo’s father carried a gun with him. Each of these guns had a story. There was the rifle that Loo’s grandfather had carried in the war, notched with kills, that now belonged to her. There was the twenty-gauge shotgun from a ranch in Wyoming where Hawley worked for a time running horses. There was a set of silver dueling pistols in a polished wooden case, won in a poker game in Arizona. The snub-nosed Ruger he kept in a bag at the back of his closet. The collection of derringers with pearl handles that he hid in the bottom drawer of his bureau. And the Colt with a stamp from Hartford, Connecticut, on the side.
The Colt had no particular resting place. Loo had found it underneath her father’s mattress and sitting openly on the kitchen table, on top of the refrigerator and once on the edge of the bathtub. The gun was her father’s shadow. Resting in the places he had passed through. If Hawley was out of the room, sometimes she would touch the handle. The grip was made of rosewood, and felt smooth beneath her fingers, but she never picked it up or moved it from whatever place he had set it down.
Hawley grabbed the Colt now and tucked it under his belt, then strung the rifles across his shoulder. He said, “Come on, troublemaker.” Then he held open the door for them both. He led his daughter into the woods behind their house and down into the ravine, where a stream rushed over mossy rocks before emptying out into the ocean.
It was a clear day. The leaves had abandoned their branches for the forest floor, a carpet of crimson, yellow and orange; crisp and rustling. Loo’s father stopped at an old maple, where a rusted paint can hung from a branch. He cracked it open with a knife, used the brush tied to the handle to mark a pine tree at one hundred yards with a small spot of white paint, then walked back to his daughter and the guns.
Hawley was in his forties but looked younger, his hips still narrow, his legs strong. He was as tall as a longboat, with wide shoulders that sloped from the years of driving his truck back and forth across the country with Loo in the passenger seat. His hands were callused from the day jobs he’d work from time to time — fixing cars or painting houses. His fingernails were lined with grease and his dark hair was always overgrown and tangled. But his eyes were a deep blue and he had a face that was rough and broken in a way that came out handsome. Wherever they had stopped on the road, whether it was for breakfast at some diner on the highway, or in a small town where they’d set up for a while, Loo would notice women drifting toward him. But her father would make his mouth go still and set his jaw and it kept anyone from getting too close.
These days his truck wasn’t going anywhere except down to the water, where they dug clams and hauled buckets of shells. Quahogs, Hawley called them. But also littlenecks, topnecks, steamers and cherrystones, depending on their size and color. He used a rake to hunt but Loo preferred a long, thin spade that could pierce the surface before the creatures began to burrow. Early each morning father and daughter rolled their pants above their knees and slipped on rubber boots. The shells were pulled from the salt marshes and mudflats, from the sandy bay and at low tide along the shore.
Hawley took the Remington off his shoulder and showed Loo how to load the clip. Five bullets slid inside, one by one. Then the magazine clicked into place.
“This is for starters. A practice gun. It won’t do much damage. But still,” he said. “Keep the safety on. Check your target and what’s behind your target. Don’t point it at anything you don’t want to shoot.”
He opened the bolt, retracted, then closed it again, pulling the first live round into the chamber. Then he handed his daughter the rifle. “Plant your feet,” he said. “Loosen your knees. Take a breath. Let half of it out. That’s when you want to squeeze the trigger. On the exhale. Don’t pull — just squeeze.”
The Remington was cool and heavy in Loo’s hands, and her arms shook a little as she raised the stock to her shoulder. She had dreamed of holding one of her father’s guns for so many years that it was as if she were dreaming now. She tried to level the sight as she took aim, pulled the handle in close, lifted her elbow and last, last of all, flipped off the safety.
“What are you going to shoot?” her father asked.
“That tree,” said Loo.
In her mind she imagined the trajectory of the bullet, saw it going for miles, creating its own history. She knew every part of this gun, every gear and bolt, and she could sense each piece now — the spring and the carrier and the chamber and the pin — working together and sliding into place as she touched the trigger.
The explosion that followed was more of a pop than a blast. The butt of the rifle barely moved against her shoulder. She expected a thrill, some kind of corresponding shudder in her body, but all she felt was a tiny bubble of relief.
“Look,” her father said.
Loo lowered the barrel. She could just make out the white mark in the distance, untouched. “I missed.”
“Everyone misses.” Hawley scratched his nose. “Your mother missed.”
“The first time,” he said. “Now slide the bolt.”
“Did she use this gun?”
“No,” said Hawley. “She liked the Ruger.”
Loo pulled back on the lever and the casing flung through the air and onto the forest floor. She locked the bolt back into place, and the next bullet slid into the chamber. Her mother, Lily, had died before the girl could remember. A drowning accident in a lake. Hawley had shown Loo the exact spot where it had happened, on a map of Wisconsin. A small blue circle she could hide with the tip of her finger.
Hawley did not like to speak about it. Because of this the air shimmered a bit whenever he did, as if Lily’s name were conjuring something dangerous. Most of what Loo knew about her mother was contained in a box full of mementos, a traveling shrine that her father re-created in the bathroom of each place they lived. Motel rooms and temporary apartments, walk-ups and cabins in the woods, and now this house on the hill, this place that Hawley said would be their home.
The photographs went up first, around the bathtub and sink. Her father affixed each carefully so they wouldn’t rip — shots of Loo’s mother and her long black hair, pale skin and green eyes. Next he arranged half-used bottles of shampoo and conditioner, a compact and a tube of red lipstick, a bent toothbrush, a silk bathrobe with dragons sewn on the back and cans of Lily’s favorite foods — pineapple and garbanzo beans — along with bits of handwriting, scraps of paper discovered after her death, things she had needed from the grocery store, lists of activities she had hoped to finish by the following Saturday and a parking ticket with fragments of a dream scribbled on the back. Old car with hinges folds down into a suitcase. Every time Loo used the toilet or took a bath, she faced her mother’s words, watching the letters bleed together over the years and the ink fade from the steam of the shower.
The dead woman was an ever-present part of their lives. When Loo did something well, her father said: Just like your mother, and when she did something bad, her father said: Your mother would never approve.
Loo squeezed the trigger. She did it again and again, reloading for over an hour, occasionally nicking bark from the tree but missing the target every time, until there was a pile of brass shells at her feet and her arm ached from the weight of the gun.
“The mark’s too small,” said Loo. “I’ll never hit it.”
Hawley pulled a wallet of tobacco from his pocket and shook it back and forth at her. Loo put down the gun. She walked over and took the pouch from him, as well as a package of rolling papers. She slid one thin piece of paper away from the rest, folded it in half with her finger and then tucked some of the tobacco along the crease. Then she placed the filter and began rolling, pinching the ends, licking the edge to seal the fold. She handed the cigarette to her father, and he lit it and settled onto a rock nearby, leaning into the sun. He had started a beard, as he did whenever the weather turned cold, and he scratched it now, his fingers catching in the wiry brown hair.
“You’re thinking too much.”
Loo tossed the pouch at him, then picked up the rifle again. Her father had hardly spoken during the lesson, as if he expected her to already know how to shoot. She’d been excited when they started, but now she was losing her nerve — in the same way she did in the bathroom surrounded by scraps of her mother’s words and cans of her mother’s favorite foods and pictures of her mother’s effortless beauty.
“I can’t do this,” she said.
The tide was coming in. Loo could hear the ocean beyond the ravine, gathering strength. One wave after another advancing upon the shore. Hawley tucked the roll of tobacco back into his pocket.
“There’s nothing between you and that tree.”
“I’m between it.”
“Then get out of the way.”
Loo flipped the safety on and put the rifle down again. She dug a rock out of the dirt with her fingers and threw it into the woods as far as she could. The rock sailed halfway toward the white mark and then crashed into some bushes. Birds scattered. The sound of a plane passed overhead. Loo looked through the branches at the flash of aluminum in the sky. Thirty thousand feet away and it seemed like an easier target.
Hawley’s cigarette had gone out as he watched her and now he relit the end, striking a match, the ember glowing once, twice, as he brought it to his lips. Then he crushed the cigarette against the rock. He blew smoke out of his mouth.
“You need a mask.” Hawley lifted his giant hands and covered his own face. Then he opened his fingers, framing his eyes and forming a bridge across his nose. It made him look like a stranger. Then Hawley dropped the mask and he was her father again.
“Try it,” he said.
Loo’s hands were not as big but they did the job, closing her off from the woods and her own disappointment. It was like blinders on a horse. Things got blurry or disappeared when she turned her eyes left or right.
“How am I supposed to shoot like this?”
“Use it to focus, then pick up the gun,” said Hawley.
Loo turned back toward the target. The sun was beginning to set. The white spot of paint caught the light and was glowing. What surrounded the tree — the earth, the sky, its own branches — fell away. This was how her father must see things, she thought. A whole world of bull’s-eyes.
Just then, beyond the mark, there was a shuffling of leaves. Some kind of movement in the woods. Loo dropped her hands from her face. She held her breath. She heard only the sound of the wind. The rattle of birch leaves flipping back and forth. The distant echo of the plane in the clouds. The scratch of a squirrel’s claws as it scrambled up the bark of a tree. But her father was listening for something else. His chin was down, his eyes cutting left. His face tensed and ready.
Hawley was always watching. Always waiting. He got the same look when they went into town for supplies, when the mailman came to their door, when a car pulled alongside them on the road. She heard him late at night, walking the living room floor, checking the locks on the windows. Digging on the beach for clams, he kept his back to the sea. These were small things, but she noticed. And she noticed now, as his whole body became still. He reached behind to his belt, and his hand came back with the Colt.
Loo spun around and picked up the rifle. Her fingers went tight on the grip. She scanned the woods, but she saw nothing. Her father was standing and he was staring in the direction of the tree. At the small white mark one hundred yards across the ravine.
He shouted her name as if their lives depended on it. And in one movement the Colt pushed through the air like an extension of his arm, and he was firing into the forest, the gun was flashing, blasting over and over, echoing against the hills. Loo brought the rifle to her chest, and she pulled the bolt and fired, pulled the bolt and fired, pulled the bolt and fired, and it wasn’t until the fifth pull that she realized her father had stopped and that she was out of bullets. Click, click, click.
Loo lowered the barrel of the rifle, expecting to see — well, she wasn’t sure exactly what she was expecting. A monster waiting for them in the trees. A shadow from her father’s past. But there was only the narrow pine with a new yellow strip, as if Hawley’s Colt had peeled the bark straight from the trunk, and two feet under, in the middle of the white spot he’d painted, three dark holes.
Loo’s father jogged over to check the target. He took his knife from his boot and dug out one of the bullets. He walked back to Loo and dropped it into her palm. A tiny piece of metal the color of gold. The bullet was from her rifle, small and shiny and hard and broken. Remade by the impact of hitting its target. Hawley smiled, his eyes bright.
Then he said, “Just like your mother.”
Hannah Tinti grew up in Salem, Massachusetts. Her short story collection Animal Crackers was a runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her best-selling novel The Good Thief won the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and an American Library Association Alex Award, and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Tinti is the co-founder and executive editor of the award-winning literary magazine One Story.
To learn more about The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, click here.