The Gold Bullet

Sean Murphy

Warily, she placed her piece—a petite, faux-platinum number that, her nephew had joked, wouldn’t stop a squirrel much less an enemy of the state—onto the table, where it was run through the electronic cage that buzzed red, then green. It slid down the conveyor belt, past the metal detector (check) and then the blue light scanned a digitally installed serial number to ensure compliance with all the revised codes (check) and, finally, it arrived before the unsmiling agent on the other side.

These were the only circumstances where it was legal for another person to confiscate her gun, although the right of American citizens to bring a single, registered firearm into federal courtrooms was even now being deliberated, again, in Congress. This issue was one of the cornerstones of the incumbent president’s platform in the upcoming election; as such, the alleged cons and evident pros were discussed, seemingly nightly, on all the newscasts.

“I’ve heard your voices loudly and clearly,” the president promised, addressing the TV audience directly during a recent debate. “And I agree that every American’s personal safety must come before even the most well-intended, if outdated laws.”

This president, in part because of his experience in front of cameras, first as an actor and then political analyst, had a seemingly unerring instinct for connecting with voters. His eventual nomination originated with a slogan—initially drawing ridicule but inevitably overwhelming approval—that updated Herbert Hoover’s notorious pledge to put “a chicken in every pot.” It was a clever touch, invoking a mostly forgotten era when not everyone had enough food; when people still cooked their own food, for that matter. Before the terror attack still starkly referred to as That Day, and before the extraordinary advancements in bio-engineered frozen paste had, a century later, finally made good, if not literally, on Hoover’s vision.

“A pistol in every pocket,” the then-candidate’s signs read, a campaign run far to the right of an unpopular commander-in-chief, on whose watch That Day had occurred. “It’s time we restored security at the forefront of American society,” he’d declared during his inauguration.

She looked across the courtroom, at the defendant, her nephew. The case did not seem promising for him, even though the plaintiffs, a couple in their early thirties, were originally from one of the nine countries identified as possible associates in the events of That Day.

And so her nephew, despite his lawyer’s unsuccessful attempt to have all charges dismissed on account of PPTTSD (Pre-and-Post Terror Traumatic Stress Disorder), had been asked every conceivable way about the probable cause for what he did. “What was your state of mind,” the prosecuting attorney demanded to know, “when you decided to enter that classroom and shoot a first grade boy?”

Never mind that the child came from a questionable home, with various relatives constantly visiting, even staying, allegedly looking for employment. Never mind that he had snuck a plastic gun past the morning pat-down (a routine that would be superfluous if, as expected, the Supreme Court ruled that the current law allowing every child twelve years of age or older to carry one firearm was expanded to include all children of all ages). Never mind that it wasn’t her nephew’s fault the boy had not properly fastened his chest protector (what grade schooler did not understand how imperative this was?). Never mind that this simple act, which should be as routine as brushing your teeth or eating all the capsules in one’s daily breakfast packet, if dutifully completed, would have prevented that bullet from puncturing his heart?

True, her nephew had failed to follow the strict etiquette of one warning shot in either leg, but considering the heightened tensions after the latest atrocity…who could blame him for following instinct instead of proper procedure?

“Your nephew has stayed with you the past six years,” his attorney had repeated the day before. “Do you have any reason to believe he was intentionally putting himself or others at risk on the morning in question?” And so on. It had been straightforward, even easy, until that final question. “Would you, therefore, be most qualified to comment on his overall character?”

If she were honest, she couldn’t be sure. But if not her, who? Her nephew had lived with her since the week he turned seventeen, the week both his parents were taken out, a terrible but justifiable case of mistaken identity. This was days after what everyone now called Decision Day, when terrorist networks infiltrated a Food Distribution Center, resulting in over twenty thousand fatalities.

To prevent further panic, the government explained they would not be disclosing the exact strain of bacteria involved, or who the culprits were, or even if they’d all been apprehended. There was, however, conclusive—if obviously top secret—evidence that there had been accomplices on the inside. (How else could the unthinkable have occurred?) Americans. Regular middle-class folks, which just went to show you never knew; we can never be too safe.

In any event, her sister’s husband’s car had almost identical state tags as one of the suspects and, well, if there was ever a situation where standard operating procedure should be overridden to potentially prevent further carnage, and the trooper involved had been placed on administrative leave, and her brother-in-law, always so hot-headed, should have immediately pulled over and surrendered his weapons, just to be safe. All she knew is it gave her no comfort placing blame on police officers on the front lines, in harm’s way, out there every day trying to keep everyone safeguarded…

Still, she wasn’t confident she could speak convincingly on her nephew’s behalf. Certainly he had changed immediately after moving in with her. Who could blame him? An only child whose parents were murdered, well, accidentally terminated and—even after they were posthumously exonerated of almost all the charges—who had to deal with the looks and unfair insinuations from classmates. It’s no wonder he stopped going to school. And who could fault him for falling in with a less savory crowd, or those outbursts (which he always regretted), or the drugs?

That first infraction, in fairness, hurt no one—only a dented fender. Admittedly, the second one had been difficult to defend, him being on probation and all. Still, the authorities were, in her view, correctly lenient, considering all he’d been through. And what of her own culpability? She, at the time an unmarried third grade teacher, unable to retire like most of her colleagues. She had not spent time with him as she might have liked, as he deserved, the way his mother would have…

“I know my nephew has a good heart,” she’d said. “And I know he will have to live with what he’s done for the rest of his life.” Her nephew’s lawyer had no further questions, and court was adjourned for the day.

Today, she knew, would be different, and likely a great deal worse. She looked up at the framed painting that hung behind the judge’s bench, alongside the portrait of the current president. The painting depicting the woman everyone simply referred to as The Hero. The woman who had, by herself, prevented the day plainly known as The Calamity from being so much worse.

There had already been The Attack, then The Shooting, and finally, The Tragedy. But the body count from each of those incidents had remained in the double-digits. As everyone knew, The Calamity resulted in 133 deaths. 133 children, teachers and security guards. And it was only this mild mother of four, not more than five feet tall and career Kindergarten classroom assistant, who’d heard the bloodbath unfolding in the cafeteria. This soft-spoken woman had grabbed her (at that time, unlicensed and therefore, technically, illegal) handgun and expertly put one between the assailant’s eyes—the same psychopath who was even then heading down the hall to…it was better not to imagine what more might have happened.

After every previous incident, including The Attack, The Shooting and The Tragedy, once the initial shock and outrage dissipated, the official response had been depressingly similar. Enough, people finally decided, was enough. After The Calamity, it would no longer be acceptable for every public school to employ two armed guards. At long last, every teacher was obligated to carry a firearm at all times. Recess was henceforth a classroom-only activity, while additional volunteer security forces helped patrol the cafeterias during lunch shifts.

She recalled the adjustments they’d all had to make. The one-hour training sessions every morning before first bell, two afternoons a week for field drills in simulated “crisis scenarios”. Target practice, the stress tests (reloading a clip while face down always gave her the most trouble), the fitness regimens (within a year she could have worn her high school prom dress again, a consolation for the ceaseless calorie counting, worries about mandatory weigh-ins and the fond memory of chocolate mousse dessert paste).

Each elementary school now had five guards, high schools anywhere from ten to twenty, depending on the type of county and number of previous infractions and close-calls. Now, with auto-manned enforcement (in her childhood everyone called them robots) handling the highways and all non-government buildings, private firms supplying experienced candidates—mostly retired military—were among the most prosperous businesses in the country. Her nephew who, despite what happened to his parents, had dreamt of becoming a state trooper since practically the day he could talk, was one of the many patriotic young men who found his options limited. Aspiring or displaced police officers who could no longer pass the physical protocols had become the primary candidates for school security positions.

Her nephew, she knew, had drifted a bit. But he was looking for a purpose. His ill-advised assault—another mark in the permanent file—had effectively derailed his vision of enlisting, but the terms of his probation did not eliminate the possibility of trial-basis security work. His record would, no doubt, preclude high school or middle school assignments, where arrests and shots fired were almost weekly occurrences, but a grade school…she’d just hoped he had not sabotaged his last opportunity.

“You are officially retired now?”

“Yes,” she affirmed, answering the question that, by her count, she had now been asked six times in two days.

“I salute you for your service. Thirty years teaching? That’s remarkable.”

Be careful, she thought. They always started slowly, buttering you up. Still, it hadn’t been that long since women were allowed back into the schools—ever since classes were divided by gender. Yet many, like her, felt awkward wearing the bulky body armor (it wasn’t so bad; you could make yourself get used to anything, although it was cumbersome using the bathroom, more so than it already was with the security cameras inside every stall). She also could never get accustomed to the shielded helmet and cordless microphone, enabling teachers to communicate with the students on the other side of the glass partition (the kind she recalled seeing in corner stores during her childhood). She’d opted for early retirement with a half-pension, a recent concession to combat an ever-escalating national deficit, the result of unavoidable defense spending.

The previous president had campaigned on stricter regulations, but while there had been no further food-borne outbreaks, the decision to eliminate human workers from the factories had resulted in so many lost jobs the current administration had ousted him, in part, by arguing that all this oversight—better handled by specialized for-profit firms anyway—would eventually prove more harmful than another theoretical breach. “Slow Death by Big Government” became the slogan that engineered a landslide victory.

“Your nephew…and we can all appreciate the trauma he, you all endured, listed you as his primary reference. You in fact wrote the letter of recommendation that helped facilitate his position at the school?”

“Of course,” she responded, wincing at what she knew was coming next.

“And this, even after he beat that fourteen year old Muslim boy into the hospital?”

There was a palpable hush in the courtroom. It was exceptionally rare, anymore, to hear any non-native referred to by their particular faith or country of origin. Fortunately, her son’s lawyer was well-prepared.

“If it pleases the court, let it be noted that the young man in question is now on The List!”

The List, of course, was comprised of the twenty or so million who had legally emigrated but, according to the current administration, warranted further investigation. This was her nephew’s best hope, she knew. The jury would have a difficult time, especially considering the current political climate, finding a young, white citizen criminally negligent.

“With his background and, in no small part owing to your influence, the leniency of his trial period, being allowed to work at all while on probation, you nevertheless admitted to giving him the book found in his backpack the day of his arrest?”

She had. She looked up, again, at the painting. Of course there had been an autobiography. Its cover, now iconic, featured The Hero holding her gun in one hand and a gold bullet in the other. The bullet they had retrieved from that maniac’s skull and repurposed as a tribute to his killer’s bravery, the resolve that made her a role model for any teacher, female or male. The bullet (not originally actual gold, needless to say) copyrighted by the current vice-president’s consulting outfit—a start-up that made this ingenious marketer a millionaire many times over—and sold, priced according to individual carat. The bullet coveted to the point where it had become the most popular stocking stuffer every year since The Calamity. The bullets initialed in (fake) blood by The Hero, with a portion of all proceeds funding security guards wounded in duty, whose medical benefits couldn’t quite cover their hospital bills.

“Do you believe it was possible you helped encourage this possibly unstable young man to emulate the courageous woman whose image we all salute during The Pledge of Allegiance?”

Another muffled hush. This was obviously a desperate, and dangerous, road for the attorney to navigate. Everyone knew that. Her nephew’s lawyer immediately raised an objection and, appropriately, the judge sustained it.

“Do you hold yourself in any way accountable?”

Another objection, but this time the judge overruled. She had hoped it wouldn’t come to this. But she was ready. It was, in fact, something her nephew had suggested, something his attorney endorsed. “It may be uncomfortable, but you can always turn the tables on them,” she’d been assured. It would, she knew, definitely be uncomfortable. But her own character, her entire career was being called into question, and her nephew was the only family she had.

“Why,” she began, reciting the lines she’d tried not to over-rehearse. “Why did that boy smuggle a toy gun into the classroom in the first place? Is it possible he was seeing something at home he wanted to imitate?”

This time the courtroom buzzed, but the murmurs seemed to register approval. As planned, she refrained from looking directly at the boy’s parents.

Before long the father was back on the stand.

Her nephew’s lawyer, reinvigorated, began inquiring about everything from whether his deceased son had ever fired an actual weapon (overruled), to who he’d voted for in the last election (sustained) to, finally, if any of their immediate or extended families had, at any time, been placed on any of the various Watch Lists.

The father could not have reasonably expected a conviction, but he’d also not anticipated needing to defend himself, or his relatives.

Before long he was found in contempt of the court.

As he was eventually led out in handcuffs, shouting in some language no one understood, there was a standing ovation. Amidst the applause, there were names and words she couldn’t believe, all directed at the red-faced father and his weeping wife.

She looked away, at her nephew, who was smiling for the first time since the day of his arrest.

Maybe he could be a hero, she thought, turning her gaze to the people on all sides of her—bystanders who had been strangers but might now be best friends. Maybe it would all be okay, she thought, trying to convince herself it was tears of relief streaming down her cheeks.

Sean Murphy has been publishing fiction, poetry, reviews (of music, movie, book, food), and essays on the technology industry for over twenty years. He has appeared on NPR's "All Things Considered" and been quoted in USA Today, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and AdAge. A long-time columnist for PopMatters, his work has also appeared in Salon, The Village Voice, Washington City Paper, The Good Men Project, Memoir Magazine, and others. (Check out a sample of his portfolio here.) His chapbook, The Blackened Blues, was published by Finishing Line Press in July, 2021. This Kind of Man, his first collection of short fiction, is forthcoming from Unsolicited Press. His novel Not To Mention a Nice Life was published in 2015, followed by his first two collections of non-fiction, Murphy’s Law, Vol One and Vol. Two. He has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, twice for Best of Net, and his book Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone was the winner of Memoir Magazine’s 2022 Memoir Prize. He served as writer-in-residence of the Noepe Center at Martha's Vineyard, and is Founding Director of 1455, a non-profit arts organization.