• New short fiction, every week.
    The words you know and love . . .
    in a totally different order.

  • 12. An Outbreak of Armed Hostilities

    By Nick Arvin

    Harper Perennial recently welcomed to the fold
    Nick Arvin—whose genius has
    been recognized by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Library Association, and Esquire, among many others. To prepare you for his new novel, The Reconstructionist,
    coming next year, here is
    a flash from his weapon.

    Hailey had been waiting for more than an hour, but waiting didn’t matter. She was content with waiting, felt calm at her core, felt she could wait out a stone. She had made a decision, and it had set her to the side of time. The world was a small world, of narrow attention and intent. No other meanings, confusions, emotions, objects. Only the weapon and the aiming of it and the using of it.

    Yet, annoyingly, when she raised her Colt it made little uncontrolled jumps. She lowered, breathed. She stood at the center of her home office, the open doorway before her. Behind her, a converted toy box painted with purple monkeys in bubble helmets held an improvised assembly of hooks and trays with a number of firearms: AK-47 semiautomatic, Benelli autoloading shotgun, HK MP5 submachine gun. But she had wanted the Colt—a Series 70 with cylinder and slide ambidextrous mag release and fiber optic sight—for her success with it in short distance accuracy. Feet set at shoulder-width. Calm. She assured herself of her calm. She imagined her rage funneling into a single hot flame.

    Then finally she heard Kevin’s car in the driveway, and she raised the Colt. It fluttered as if she held a desperate bird. It really pissed her off.


    Kevin was halfway across the lawn when he heard a subterranean chortling. He tried to dodge over to the flagstone pathway, but he slipped in the grass and his ankle tweaked, stopping him while the lawn sprinklers popped and spewed. They soaked his khakis to the knees. He hobbled the rest of the way to the porch, cursing.

    The front door was unlocked and Hailey’s purse stood on the table beside the newel post. The stereo burbled a soft old rock song. He dropped his briefcase. “Hailey?” Leaning on the sofa, he pulled off his shoes and wet trousers. “Love?” He was thinking of asking her for a massage.

    He started upstairs, his pants in one hand. “Are you on the phone?” he called. The problem with the size of the damned house was that, really, she could be anywhere. “Are you pretending to be on the phone? Hello? Hello? Ahoy? If you can hear me, blink twice.” Probably she was in her office. She didn’t really need an office, she rarely brought work home, but she had spent more and more time there, avoiding him. He wished he had brought flowers. Climbing the stairs forced him to put weight on his ankle, and it complained. On the top step he paused to flex it.


    She said nothing. He couldn’t move down the hallway without passing this doorway.

    The Colt still trembled too much. She tightened a bead on the light switch in the hallway and counted breaths. She made the counting of breaths fill her mind. She heard, faintly, one more step.

    He came into view.

    She clenched the trigger, and the Colt exploded and bucked. But she knew already that she’d pulled the shot over his shoulder. She had flinched, and she cursed herself for it. Kevin fell backward screeching like a girl, a sound that did provide a flicker of satisfaction.

    As he dropped away his legs went into the air: he wasn’t wearing pants.


    He fell. The ceiling rotated into view. With a flailing hand he caught the banister, and panic found him and surged as his hip struck the stair. He lost hold of the banister and jounced downward while her following shots exploded out of her office wall in a rough line that followed the downward slant of the wainscoting.


    How could she have missed? She condemned herself for nervousness, for weakness, for lack of conviction. It was a stupid, terrible mistake. His gun locker was down there.

    Nonetheless, amid the riotous, blood-rushing noise that filled her ears, she felt lightened: finally she had moved on, and now she would never need to return.


    Lying on the kitchen floor he screamed, “Are you insane?” One, two more bullets crashed down through the ceiling. He crabbed over to the center island slab to hide under its granite top. “Hailey, Hailey, Hailey!” he shouted. “This is completely irrational! Stop it!”

    Varnished maple cabinet doors spun open and splintered. The cappuccino maker exploded. The Viking oven’s door window shattered. A bullet passed near his head, hissing. The flowing wood grain of the cabinet before him was rendered in extraordinary detail and his sense of time was greatly slowed, although not nearly as much as he would have liked. “You’re going to kill me! Me!” She was confused, he thought; this was a mistake. “It’s Kevin! Your husband!”

    “Adulterer!” she shouted.

    The cabinetry issued more shards of glass and tableware. He pressed down while wreckage rolled and skittered. “This is an overreaction! Stop! Talk to me!” She paused, and it seemed important to talk, to say anything. “I’m listening,” he called. “Adulterer—I hear you. Tell me more. And, Hailey, you’re wrecking the cabinets! We paid thirty thousand dollars for these cabinets. I could have lived with the old ones. They’re your cabinets, Hailey. Can’t we talk about this? Please. I’ll beg.”

    Quiet. He hungered for more quiet.

    She said, “Hair.”


    “Brunette. In the bedroom, in the bathroom.”

    “This is because of a couple of hairs?”

    “In my Vagasil, Kevin.”

    He wanted Annette’s neck in his hands. “Never again, Hailey. This is one of those moments when everything changes. Everything is different. We can talk. Or not—we don’t even have to. I understand now. Nothing like being shot at to change your perspective.” He was shaking and screaming. He barely understood himself. “I never want to see another woman. The idea makes me want to vomit.”

    “You can’t change, Kevin.”

    “I will!”

    But finger-size holes punctured the refrigerator; the door of the dishwasher slapped down; the flour jar exploded into a seething white cloud. She was still shooting wildly through the walls, but he realized she might decide to come downstairs to hunt him. The thought amplified his panic. To reach the car he’d have to limp across the lawn, and in that expanse she could drop him easily.

    The sound of her discharges grew louder, harsher—she was using the HK. Granite flaked off the countertops; fragments of ceiling came down; bullets punched holes in the slate floor tiles; a vase of dried flowers on the center island disintegrated and fell in a pitter-patter on his back. The next time she paused, he pushed up and, wincing against his ankle, in boxers and socks, he gimped through the living room, swung the basement door, and dove.


    She aimed toward where she had heard his voice and shot hole after hole in the wall. They had bought the house when they were looking to a future with children—the agreed number was three. But no children had come, and the doctor said she would never have any. She had suggested that they should look for a condo or townhouse nearer to the city, but Kevin had no enthusiasm for such a search, and despite herself she was still trying to make him happy. So they continued in the house. Like a fortress waiting for reinforcements that no one believed in.

    Dust swirled, luminous and pulsing as the HK discharged.

    He overwhelmed everything else and drew her along. He had this particular knack—when she spoke, he leaned and absorbed her words. Then he turned them around and gave them back with an addition of his own insight. He wasn’t all bad. No. Sure. And she had infinite feeling for him. But he was unfaithful. It was in his nature to be unfaithful. And she would kill him. She should have left after the first time, and she would have, except that his remorse seemed so sincere. That time and every time after, she had confronted him, and he had listened, had repeated what she said in ways that indicated he understood. He believed his own behavior was a dysfunction, that it resulted from his parents’ physical coldness, which caused a reactionary lunge on his part toward intimate human connections. He had promised to stop, to put away the latest woman immediately and hard. And he did, and all was well and loving, for a few months.

    Everything would change when they were married, he had said, but six weeks later she found a woman’s fishnet stocking in the laundry. Four months after that she heard him whispering into the phone. And so it went, a cycle, an unvarying pattern. Until she had cried that, if he had to sleep around, couldn’t he at least be discreet?

    He said he understood. He said that perhaps on some level he was seeking reaffirmation of her love for him. And he promised to change. He ended these conversations in tears, in apparently genuine emotional pain, and it always wrung her, made it possible for her to think that now things would be different.

    Until she nestled against him on the couch and smelled a strange perfume or noticed lipstick under his chin.


    He had never been shot at before. Years ago he had been sucker-punched in a bar, and he remembered the instant of gaping, panicked shock, the sense of space and time made void. Also, the rush of energy that followed. He had broken the man’s nose with the blunt end of a pint glass.

    Grunting, he crossed the basement. Bullet holes had pocked the ceiling even here, but the wine bottles still lay bellied and dusty on their racks and an undisturbed triangle of balls stood on the pool table. The problem with you, she had told him once, is that you don’t have any regrets. It bothered him. He had regrets. He regretted every time he had ever slept around. He hated himself for it. He regretted that he didn’t appreciate Hailey more fully, more constantly. Nights, he lay sleepless, aching, stuffed with regrets.

    Admittedly, he understood why she said that. Regret appeared insincere when it didn’t lead to revisions of behavior. He regretted that, too. Regret and guilt, guilt like a tide, pulling always back toward her.

    But this—this!

    The lockers, a row of five, had been salvaged from a local junior high. He opened the first two lockers and removed the Beretta machine pistol and the Vektor CR21 bullpup. Guilt—going to the range and focusing carefully was one way to deal with guilt. He could feel the emotion leave, slug by slug. What remained was power, for what was guilt but a mask on power? Without power, guilt was impossible, and a weapon could make power naked again.

    He opened the last locker and lifted out a suit of tactical body armor. Clumsily, he carried everything to a position where he could watch the basement stairway while he checked the weapons and pulled on the Kevlar vest with ceramic chest and back plates, then the upper arm and forearm protectors, the leggings, the ballistic helmet.


    A magazine ended. She separated finger from trigger. No sound except the false sounds in her head, for a minute, longer, until she imagined that she had killed him, his blood easing across the kitchen floor, vanishing into the gap below the dishwasher—terrible. Yet, if there was one person she should be allowed to kill, it was her husband.

    She went to the doorway and peered at the stairs. She was reluctant to go down. She hated the sight of blood. And her ammunition was here.


    No answer. She retreated. She would stay. Eventually the police would come, and if he were dead she would deal with all of that. She went to the window. Orderly blocks of large houses on small lots. No police yet.

    The walls of her office were a soft green and decorated with photos of flowers, a white and orange polka-dotted children’s dresser, a Donald Duck table lamp, and the toy box with her guns. She had stopped buying children’s things when she learned that she was infertile, although she still sometimes wandered the children’s section of Target, touching a bassinet, a stroller.

    Shortly after they started dating, Kevin had given her a stainless steel, short nosed, nine-shot Taurus revolver. She had never even held a gun before. He had arranged for a waiter to bring it to her in a wooden box on a tray at dinner. She opened it, and Kevin leaned close and whispered, “It’s loaded.”

    Eight birthdays since then. Her thirty-sixth had been only two weeks ago, and Kevin had given her a bear—a large bear in a full suit of tailored clothing and a stovepipe hat, with eerie crystal blue eyes. It sat in the corner of her office. Always before Kevin had given her gifts like that first Taurus revolver: if not a new gun then a sight, a designer holster, or some other accessory. Now what did she get? A long, dark hair in the center of her pillow; another on the rim of the toilet; several more stuffed into the bottles and tubes of lotions and creams in the vanity—and this bear: a childish, patronizing gift. Who would he give a gun, except the woman he truly loved? And that had come to an end. She had become just another to placate.

    She reloaded the HK and put ammunition and the Kalashnikov within reach. The sound of a siren curved up to the house. She watched from the window. A police car stopped at the curb, lights going, and two uniformed officers climbed out the far side and crouched.


    Kevin had bought the armor after seeing footage of a bank robbery in L.A. The bad guy, with a MAC-10 in one hand and an autopistol in the other, walked out of the bank into the fire of a half dozen cops. While the cops shot and shot and shot him, he strolled down the sidewalk to his getaway vehicle. The bullets barely shook him, as might snowballs. He was only apprehended after the police threw a stun grenade in the window of his SUV.

    Kevin stood in the living room and called, “Hailey. We can talk. Why can’t we talk?”

    “What happened to your pants?”

    He looked down at himself. She didn’t know about the armor. He had been embarrassed about the cost. And although he had meant to tell her, there had been a lot of things they weren’t talking about. “I got hit by the sprinklers.”

    She laughed. “I even don’t know whether I can believe that.”

    “Why would I make it up?”

    She opened fire. He watched as the destruction of drywall revealed the internal framework of studs, and then the studs chewed into splinters. Perhaps it was the protection of the Kevlar, but his anger had declined. Dust eddied through the room and settled in a snowy layer on the sofa and armchairs, on the Cottage Living magazines fanned across the coffee table, on the leaves of the potted fern in the corner. A ceiling fan blade dropped on his shoulder. A series of rounds swept the leather couch, lofting a wake of stuffing. His Stratocaster in the corner twanged. The radio speakers yelped static, then were silent.


    Reloading, she giggled. Dust, splintered floorboards, and expended shell casings lay all around. Among them, at her feet, gleamed fallen tears and sweat. She called, “You know the cops are here.”

    “I understand that this is basically my fault,” he called. “I accept responsibility.”

    “Establishing sniper positions.”

    “I’m sorry.”

    “It’s not a problem of admitting fault, and it’s not a problem about beating yourself up. Those’re never your problems.”

    “I get it. My problems are bad problems,” he called. “But I think maybe you’re having a problem of proportion.”

    He sounded calm, and his calm irritated her, and she began to shoot again.


    The leggings itched against his bare skin. The noise of her gunfire was now so continuous that it blended into a condition not unlike silence. Bullets exploded the glass in the French door and chipped at the fireplace; an ottoman spun across the room; needle lines of sunlight pierced the west wall and streaked the airborne haze.

    Hit in the chest and knocked backward by the impact, he put a foot out and twisted hard on his sore ankle. But his chest hurt far more than his ankle, and briefly he believed the bullet had cut through and into a rib. He looked at himself, extended the arm, closed and opened the fingers.

    As he began returning fire, he was moved by wonder—the gun was familiar, the house was familiar, but applying the gun to the house was strange and joyous.


    The floor of the hallway exploded in a wave of churning and splintering floorboards that continued through the wall of her office and staggered across the ceiling. She threw her arms up before she remembered the weapon in her hand.

    For a minute the exchange continued antiphonally. Outside a helicopter thudded, and the police were shouting through speakers, but she couldn’t make out a word of it. Then her left leg collapsed. She toppled, the pain doubling and redoubling as her hip smashed into the floor. A whitening overtook the world. When it cleared a little she saw her pants dark with blood, the stain spreading, her leg bent at a curious angle.


    Her screams were terrifying. Kevin threw down both guns and ran to the foot of the stair. In the dust and smoke he could only see the outline of the doorway of her office.

    “Are you hurt?” he called. “Let me help.”


    She whimpered, steadied her breathing. She waited. She felt sure. The pattern of her life had come into view plainly, as if at a break in the clouds the thousand lights of a city were revealed, intricate and shining.


    Glass shattered behind him. Two small canisters came in through the window and skittered over the floor, spewing fast white streams of smoke.

    He took a breath and held it as he started up the stairs.


    She had pushed herself against the wall, where she could lean back with her injured leg stretched forward. She needed both hands to raise the Kalashnikov. She fired toward a gray vague figure in the hazy air. It could only be her husband, but he looked bulky and strange. And the bullets went into him without effect. She had the impression of a dream, of a snowstorm amid a barren landscape, of knowing each snowflake as a falling individual mote, of everything soft and muted and irrelevant except the hard line of the trigger on her finger and the spasms of a useless gun.

    But then he neared and he was a man from outer space—the helmet, the armor. She screamed in rage. She had never had a chance.

    When she saw that his hands appeared empty she briefly hesitated. But, no, it didn’t matter now. And she didn’t trust him.


    The first time he had set her up with a submachine gun he knew he had connected with something essential inside her—she reminded him of a kid with a garden hose. He had put the gun in her hands, and she had been happy, and this made him happy.

    The blood escaping from her hip made a wide glistening pool in the carpet.

    He hunched and kept his head down, because he had no protection for his face except the helmet on his head, and he struggled forward like a boxer moving into body blows, knocking the breath from his lungs. He kicked aside the teddy bear. He feared he would collapse.

    “Hailey,” he whispered. “You can stop now.” His mind moved erratically, but he slogged through the smoke and dust and the punching of the bullets. His right arm flung itself backward and announced a terrible hurt. But he kept core of a simple focus, to move forward, to reach her. If only he could push aside the gun and speak to her. If only he could touch her. All that he saw was the intermittent muzzle flash, the meaningful world reduced to that occasional light, a distant fire in a storm. “Please,” he said, “Hailey, oh Hailey—”


    The Kalashnikov was heat and noise before her, the last of the magazine was feeding in, and he was nearly to her, but slow, staggering, one arm limp. The sun leaned through the window overhead, streaking the smoke and dust and landing on his legs.

    No pants. Why did she feel for him?

    But she did. She did. She did.

    The gun beat her shoulder. This will decide it, she thought, clutching and hushed. Let this magazine be exhausted, and then we will see where we are.


    © by Nick Arvin. Used by permission of the author.

    Visit Nick here . . .

    Read a selection from his first novel, Articles of War, here:

    And pick up a copy here:

    Our Friends

  • They Come in Collections, Too

    New and Impending from Harper Perennial: