The first time Mage entered a gun and ammo store, she was in her twenties and dressed for a funeral. Her friend Tommy, on the other hand, was nearing forty and looked like he was going golfing after their shopping excursion.
The bell above the door hadn’t stopped ringing before an old man cleared his throat to announce his presence. He stood behind the counter in a camouflage outfit at the far end of the store. He knew they were there, and now they knew he was there too.
He didn’t greet them, and Mage suspected this was the treatment he gave strangers. What other businesses might refer to as “new customers.”
The place had the charm of a small town hardware store, and Mage expected to smell sawdust, but instead found the pine-scented cleaner used to mop the floor. She pretended as if she knew what she was looking for down the aisles of white plastic shelving concealing the particle board interior. She was just taking in the experience. Anything to keep her from thinking about the past few weeks.
Tommy would go from following her around and pointing at things to going off in another direction.
When he wasn’t looking, Mage reached for a sweater that she should have been wearing. Tommy said it would be cold, but she was determined not to be bothered by the weather. It was spring. It should be warm enough to go without long sleeves.
The old man cleared his throat again, followed by, “Can I help you?”
She could only imagine how out of place they looked, but took comfort that they didn’t look menacing.
Tommy stepped forward. “We’re interested in learning more about… what we can do about… self-protection.”
The old man didn’t say anything more until the two of them reached the counter.
“What’s the story with the two of you?”
“What do you mean?” Tommy replied.
“Most people who walk into a gun and ammo store aren’t dressed for a funeral.”
Tommy shook his head for the store owner to cut it out. The clear meaning was that someone had, in fact, died.
“Sorry.” The owner added, “Here to blow off some steam?”
“Sure,” Mage replied and then walked toward a glass display to examine its contents.
“My condolences. Was it a relative?”
Tommy deflated. He warned her people might say something or ask questions. Now the old man in the camo behind the counter was doing exactly that.
“Sister,” she said, not turning her head from the display.
“Damn. What time’s the service?”
Mage returned to Tommy’s side before saying, “Started ten minutes ago.”
Old Man Camo chewed on his tongue for a bit.
“I don’t know how to say this, so I’ll just say it how it’s going to come out. Like how it is in my head, ya see?”
“No, but I guess we’ll find out.”
“There’s a waiting period for buying a firearm in this state.”
Mage didn’t understand the significance.
Her friend Tommy spoke up. “Look. My friend had a rough couple of weeks. The thing with her half sister is complicated, but we’re here because her apartment was broken into and we’re considering lessons in personal protection.”
“The both of you?”
Mage added, “Your store offered a free initial demonstration followed by a more thorough safety course.”
The barrel-chested man gave them the stink eye. He was at an age where he should have been retired, if by the stench of his breath alone.
“Um, I’m fine with the waiting period. I’m not going to shoot up the funeral if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Well, that was my first concern, but… look, I don’t know what you two have gotten yourselves into…”
“You think you’re the first adulterers to come in here?”
“Barf,” said Mage.
Tommy, equally outraged, said, “But I’m married!” as if that mattered. That is, after all, a requirement for an extramarital affair.
“Well, that is clear. You’re the older one with the wedding ring. I’m not judging you.”
“He’s a work friend.”
“Yes you are because there is nothing between us.”
“Why didn’t your wife come along, then?”
“Please, it’s Sunday,” Tommy said, but Old Man Camo didn’t get it.
Mage added, “She’s coaching their son’s soccer game.”
“Look, here’s a picture of all of us together.”
Tommy handed him a phone displaying an image of himself, his wife, their son, and Mage underneath a party banner reading Happy Birthday Auntie Mage.
“Who are all these other people in the photograph?”
“More friends from work,” said Mage.
“We’re kinda like family,” Tommy added.
“They kinda are my family,” Mage corrected.
Another glance down at the image. Studying it as if he were trying to spot a fake ID at a campus bar.
He nervously shifted his eyes between the two of them before finally landing back on Tommy.
“She’s your sister?”
“Oh dear lord!” Mage said.
But Old Man Camo gave a genuine chuckle.
“Sorry, thought you could use a good laugh.”
Mage and Tommy smiled, but only Old Man Camo was laughing at the conclusion of the bizarre interrogation.
After an overview, they walked out back to the firing range. Old Man Camo transported all the dangerous equipment, while Mage and Tommy were stuck carrying a stack of paper targets and noise-reducing headsets.
Mage had refused the offer from Camo to lend her a jacket.
The sky was cloudy and stubborn, denying the leaves and blossoms the light needed to wake up from their winter slumber.
The two of them also had the responsibility of attaching the targets to the lines in front of the weathered backstop. Tommy, nervous as always, kept his eyes on their instructor, who kept his hands safely behind his back and away from the weapons that were lying on a folding table.
When they were all set and safely off the range, the instructor repeated the safety information he went over with them inside verbatim. Tommy listened as if he were hearing it for the first time, and Mage concentrated on not rolling her eyes.
The range was wide, and Old Man Camo spaced the two of them unnecessarily far apart, in Mage’s opinion. He stood behind them, although much closer to her than to Tommy.
Despite her drive to get started, Mage took her time getting ready. She didn’t want to lose her focus, with such a dangerous instrument. Before she finished, she had repeated the instructor’s directions in her head a third time, which earned him some gratitude points from her that she planned to keep to herself.
She aimed the weapon and stared down the target, but all she could think about was the one person who had consumed her all week. Her father.
How he abandoned her and her mother when she was in kindergarten.
How when her mother died last year, she couldn’t find him.
How her only family up until six months ago she had met at work.
All the holidays she spent at their houses.
How, out of the blue, she receives a letter from her father about Olivia, the half sister she never knew existed, who was now terminally ill.
And wanted to meet.
How he’d been part of Olivia’s life but not hers.
How he said it would mean the world to Olivia’s children.
She removed the noise-reducing headset.
Old Man Camo patted her back with one hand and gently and expertly lifted the firearm out of her grip while she collapsed into his shoulder. He smelled like tobacco and campfire smoke.
She had no memory of her father’s scent. The tears came, and the sobbing started.
“Oh, Mage.” Tommy was late to the party, having been occupied with his own target.
She tried speaking through the sobs. None of it was comprehensible, no matter how she powered through the grief.
After the episode at the gun and ammo store, the darkness of her thoughts grew in her journal. But it didn’t last. It was not a quick reversal, but Tommy and the rest of her chosen family nurtured her at the pace she needed. Nothing was rushed, and they never suggested that she needed to return to her normal self.
Although, that is pretty much what happened. The years that followed were happy ones, and happiness is a natural repellent to dark magic.
Still, she had gone to the trouble of taping her sister’s obituary to the inside cover of her journal. I imagine this caused her to see it more frequently than if she had taped it to a page.
The quick version of the obit read:
Olivia Shue had married in her early twenties and, after having their first child, never returned to work.
The rest of the text described her commitment to her home life. The closing lines said she was survived by a husband, three children (Terry, Joe, and Melissa), “loving parents,” and “her sister, Mage.”