“Can you tell me about the time we heard the gunshots?”
“They sounded phsew.”
“That’s what they sounded like?”
“And what did we have to do?”
“And where were we?”
[Sound of woods in summer: insects clicking, bird song.]
Last summer, when my son was still a baby, I’d strap him against my chest in one of those wearable carriers and take him on long walks. We’d be belly to belly, his head next to my heart, his legs and arms dangling down. Sometimes he’d nap. Other times he’d just bob along, looking sideways at the thistle and ironweed that fills the ditches along our road or at the occasional pickup truck that clatters by. He likes the weeds that flower.
We live in the foothills of Appalachia, near a lake that nobody goes to. It’s called Fox Lake, though we’ve never seen a fox. In fact, from the road we can’t even see the lake. It’s hidden behind a half mile of woods and weed-choked fields. Instead, what we see as we walk along the road—what tells us we’re nearing the lake—is an old parking lot, cut into the middle of the woods, in what seems like the middle of nowhere.
The asphalt is cracked. Old beer cans are scattered around, and bits of broken glass glint brown and green in the sunlight. We rarely see anyone parked there, but our neighbors have warned us about the lot: it’s where teenagers drink and make out; it’s where drug dealers meet users; it’s where hunters take easy shots from the back of their trucks. The deer run thick in our woods, and every day we hear rifle shots, in season and out.
My son and I haven’t seen anything so sinister. Once we saw an SUV full of kids blasting music and once we saw a man wearing a neon-orange camo-jumpsuit and carrying a three-foot hunter’s rifle. I waved. He waved back. That was it. No, if we see anything at all, it’s usually a single car or truck parked in this shade, with a window down or a door opened. Somebody sits there, quietly enjoying the breeze and birdsong.
Except once. Once, as my son and I neared the lot, I saw two men arguing. They’d parked their cars next to each other and stood in the narrow space between them. One man—the one facing us—was much bigger. He had a thick beard and, as he spoke, he jabbed his index finger down at the other man. I didn’t look at them for long, and they didn’t look over, but I’m sure they saw us. We were close enough not to miss.
My plan was to walk one of the trials to the lake. My son was awake, so I thought we’d sneak up on some geese and send them honking and flapping away. That’s big fun for a baby. So I skirted the edge of the lot and took the closest trial. My son and I soon disappeared into the overgrown brush and soon all we could hear were the sparrows and warblers. All, that is, until we heard the gunshots, four of them, loud and close.
[Sound of gunshots]
I stopped. Adrenaline shot through me. I felt that animal panic: go, go. I didn’t. Instead, I stood there, doubting my own ears. Gunshots? Really? I looked back. I didn’t see anything or hear anything. Then I looked down at my son. He was staring in the direction of the shots, his eyes wide and quizzical. He’d heard it, and that was all the confirmation I needed. I cupped my hands around his small body and took off down the trail.
We’d have to go through the woods, I knew that. Every trail back to the road ended at the parking lot, and we couldn’t go back, because if we did, if we went back, then we’d see—what? One man pointing a gun at another? A body crumpled on the asphalt? These all struck me as Hollywood fantasies, the stuff of second-rate noir. And yet, whatever was or had happened, I didn’t want us near it. I didn’t want to take that risk.
I cut across a small creek and through some underbrush. Immediately, thorns pulled at my legs, and I struggled to keep my footing. I knew the general direction home, but it meant going up, then down a steep hill slick with mossy rocks and last year’s leaves. I had to calculate each step. I’d wedge my foot against a weedy outcropping or tree trunk, then lunge for the next handhold—another rock or branch I could use to hoist us up.
The going was slow. Foot to hand, hand to foot. Every so often, I’d stop to check on my son. He was now dangling right below my chin. And he was fine. In fact, he looked pleasantly surprised. He had a new view of the leaves high above us and the dark intercrossing branches. We were also moving in a novel way, now that I’d become this sort of kangaroo-bear, clambering up the hillside on all fours with my cub.
The pace also gave me time to second guess myself. This was stupid. This wasn’t real. This was me, making shit up. I’d misunderstood what I’d heard and now I was overreacting. And I was putting us in real danger. What if I fell? What if I hurt my son or myself? Who’d find us this far off the trail? I tried to ignore these thoughts, but before long I couldn’t tell if I was dragging us through the woods to avoid danger or just creating it.
I won’t detail the long trek back—the difficulty I had making my way down the hill, mostly by skidding on my butt, or crossing a stagnant creek that was as much old tires and trash as mud and muck—but I should say that, about halfway down the hill, I heard a car or truck race down the road and screech into the parking lot. I froze and listened, but I couldn’t hear anything until a few minutes later, when it sped back in the same direction.
What happened? I don’t know. I still don’t know. When I finally made it home, filthy and scratched-up, I was so exhausted that I didn’t even want to tell my wife about it. How would I explain to her what I’d done when I was no longer sure why I’d done it? I did, though, I told her. And we came to the obvious conclusion that I should drive back to the parking lot and check it out. So I handed over our son and reluctantly headed out the door.
On the short drive over, I had one last worry. What if one of the men was still waiting for us to come out of the woods? What if this really was one of those get-rid-of-the-body-and-the-witnesses situations? Wouldn’t I be driving right into it? Fortunately, when I arrived, I drove right into an empty parking lot. No one was there. I drove to the spot where the men had been arguing. No broken glass, no bloody stain. The lot looked as it always had.
So I went home. And I more or less forgot about it. And life went on. Since then, my son and I have gone on that walk once or twice a week, and sometimes I’ll ask if he remembers that time when we trekked through the woods. Do you remember the climb? The creek? Do you remember the gunshots? My son talks now and he obligingly says, “Yeah,” but I doubt it, just like now I doubt that we were really ever in danger.
And yet those gunshots were real. I know that. And I think about that each time we go on our walk after the latest school shooting. I think about how easily I’ve dismissed the whole experience and gone on as though it never happened—gone back, in fact, right to the place where it happened, where an angry man fired four gunshots not more than a hundred feet from my son. Here we are, I think, right where he or I might have been killed.
What would it take for me to change? To recognize the danger we were actually in? Clearly, what happened wasn’t enough. What if I knew we’d see those men again, maybe not today, but soon? Would I still go? Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Parkland. We all know we’ll see those men again. We all know some man is going to come to our schools and start shooting, maybe not today, but soon, and we don’t change.
I think back to the moment when I was standing on the trail, listening, wondering if the shots I’d heard were real: it wasn’t quiet. The birds around us never stopped. The swallows, the warblers, the goldfinches in the high weeds, they all kept singing. For them, gunshots have become normal, natural, a sound as easy to dismiss as passing cars or a father on a walk with his son or two angry men arguing toward who knows what end.
“They sounded phsew.”
“That’s what they sounded like?”
“And what did we have to do?”
Eric LeMay is the author of four books. He is on the faculty of the writing program at Ohio University and is also a host on the New Books Network. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Gastronomica, Poetry Daily, the Best Food Writing series, and other venues. He lives in Athens, Ohio, with his wife and fellow writer, Kristin LeMay, and their son.