THE LITTLE BOY FOUND IT in the dirt beside the playground. An only child, he played on the monkey bars and swings by himself whenever the school bus dropped him at his stop a half block away. He had never known his father who left the family when the boy was a toddler. His mother worked long hours in the shoe lace factory on an assembly line, sorting laces by color and length before packaging. She did not get off until 6 p.m., and wouldn’t allow the boy to carry a key since he once lost it. In this neighborhood, break-ins were too common. The boy knew to play at the playground after school until she came home. If the weather was bad, the boy was instructed to loiter at the Kmart a few blocks down. He would wander the aisles, looking at items he couldn’t afford. Sometimes he would spend up to three hours. He had memorized every item and every price and every worker who wore a name tag. His mother had warned him not to ever give in to the temptation to shoplift anything. Stealing is one of the Ten Commandments, she said. God would see it, He sees everything, and He would feel obligated to take your mother away, she said, or inflict some sort of bodily torture.
He and his mother lived in a tough part of town in a small apartment, and every day she worried, knowing her boy was alone waiting for her. They had no relatives nearby, and the neighbors were the unsavory type. There was crime, including gangs, drugs, shootings. She had hoped to move from the area into a better place but couldn’t afford a change. The boy was careful, though, and street smart, and so far, lucky.
As often as he spent time at the playground, he found various things he collected. Coins, bottle caps, stones, feathers. He would put them in his pocket and take them home and place them in a shoebox he kept under his bed. They were his treasures, he thought, and they added a daily incentive for him to wander the playground even those times he couldn’t help but feel lonely or bored. And they were free. He would show his mother whatever he found and she would pretend to be impressed. He would sit at the kitchen table while she prepared supper—usually macaroni and cheese or hot dogs or frozen pizza—and entertain her with colorful stories about every object and how they ended up at the playground. He would explain about each object’s owner, even give the person a name and job and go further to delve into the person’s disappointments and dreams. His mother actually was impressed with her son’s imagination, if not the object itself. She even told him that he should one day be a writer of stories.
At first, he noticed something shiny and thought it might be a piece of jewelry. When he picked it up, he saw it was a bullet. This was truly special. He had never seen a bullet in person, or touched one. He couldn’t wait to show his mother, but when he did, her face sagged. The bullet was a harsh reminder to her of her failure to escape the neighborhood with her son. It stood for all the dangers she allowed her son to be exposed to on a daily basis. But she could see her son’s excitement and quickly pretended to be in awe of the cylindrical silver thing.
This time, the boy did not tell her a story, though. In fact, as she broke eggs on the edge of a pan for their fried egg supper, she noticed the silence in the room. She looked over her shoulder and saw the boy carefully studying the bullet from every angle. He eyeballed it up close. Moved it away at arm’s length. Turned it over and upside down. Ran his fingertip along its smooth body. Finally, she asked.
“Son, aren’t you going to tell me about the bullet? One of your stories?”
The boy shook his head, no, without speaking. He was too intensely preoccupied by the very fact of the bullet. He kept studying it.
“Marcus, you know how much I love your stories. Help your mama get this supper done. It’s more fun when you tell me all about it.”
The boy finally looked up. “Mama, I have to really think on this one. I’ll tell you about it when I have it figured out.”
She stuck out her lower lip in an exaggerated pout. “Oh, all right, Marcus… I suppose I can wait.”
Marcus put the bullet down next to his plate. “The eggs smell good, Mama. Let’s eat.”
That night in his bedroom, Marcus held the bullet up to the lamplight. He wondered if it had passed through an arm or a leg or maybe even a skull. Then he got to thinking about all the bullets that are shot and if they leave holes in the air that we can’t see. What if the world is like Swiss cheese? Maybe that’s how spirits come and go, darting through the holes like fish, back and forth between this place and the next. Maybe every second, somewhere, new holes are blasted in the world’s invisible walls, some before, some after—some before and after—bullets pierce flesh. He looked up at the bullet, moving it closer to the lamp’s bulb.
He wondered if the bullet could bestow magical powers. Could rubbing it and concentrating hard allow a person to feel dead people’s presence in a room? He reached out his hand and felt air floating all around, like liquid, like water. Was that what spirits felt like? Is the universe a huge aquarium, all the living people like ocean rocks or coral reefs, beautiful but stiff, and all the dead swimming around invisibly?
Marcus wanted to know the truth. He knew that his other stories about objects were just that—stories. But for the bullet, he wanted more. He put the bullet under his pillow hoping it might speak to him in his dreams. Maybe it would tell him how hard it can be to hit a man, being so small. What would its voice sound like? He closed his eyes and listened:
You’d think they’d have made me at least the size of the target—a heart, a head, the back of a man fleeing.
Then sleep arrived and the bullet told Marcus how it remembered the man who kissed it for luck before loading it into his gun. The bullet wondered what happened to him and other bullets it got to know waiting in the cold, metallic dark of the gun’s chamber.
Marcus begged the bullet for more.
I’ve let slip too much already. If the god of bullets knew that I’ve been talking, I’d be in big trouble.
Marcus swore he’d never tell anybody, not even his own mother. The bullet’s secrets were safe with him.
If you ever tell anyone, I will make sure that one of my brothers finds you one day. When you least expect it, a bullet will pluck you from the earth. Also, your mother.
Marcus nodded emphatically.
And you should know how it feels. Like a ferocious burn that missiles through you and explodes your insides. Imagine the pain of ten thousand bee stings wrapped into one moment of piercing agony.
Marcus was unsettled, but swore he’d never, ever, tell a soul.
The bullet finally admitted that it had only bounced off a wall. It had not touched flesh. It was hard to hit a man being so small, the bullet explained—which did not surprise Marcus. But he was disappointed. He had hoped for something juicier. Something tragic and dramatic. Something right out of movies.
Don’t worry, kid. Have faith in the genius of men. One day they’ll make a bullet the size of a neighborhood or a city or a country. Maybe they already have. One day, they’ll have a bullet as big as the world so there’s no way they can miss.
When Marcus woke, he had forgotten his dream. He reached under the pillow and pulled out the bullet. He tried, mentally, to bring back anything at all but couldn’t. He carried the bullet around in his pocket all day just in case it decided to give him information. He didn’t know how it might communicate, a bullet to a person, but he never ruled out anything—which is what made life interesting, or at least, tolerable. To be open to the strange, the impossible even.
Periodically, Marcus would stick his hand in his pocket and finger the bullet, stroking it as if it were a tiny pet. All through school that day, nobody suspected that he had a pet bullet. In the school bathroom he went into a stall and closed the door. He took his pet bullet out and brought it within inches of his face. He telepathically asked if the bullet was comfortable and happy. He stared at it hard and concentrated. He asked if the bullet needed anything. What does a bullet need? He asked. Then he closed his eyes and listened for an answer. But there was nothing. He heard other boys enter the bathroom and shoved the bullet back into his pocket. That night he tried the same technique: put the bullet under his pillow and hope for something, anything in the form of bullet talk. Whether or not he dreamed or the bullet spoke, he couldn’t recall when he opened his eyes the next morning. For a week this was his routine: during the day secretly carrying the bullet around, fingering, mentally questioning, hoping—and during the night, sleeping with the bullet under his pillow.
Only once, several days later did Marcus’ mother ask about the bullet.
“Son, did you ever figure out the story of your bullet?”
“No, Ma. Not yet.”
“You didn’t find any others, did you?
“No, Ma. Just the one.”
“Have you found anything else to tell me about?”
“No, Ma. Nothin’ much out there these days.”
Marcus lied. He had found several things that in the past would have stood out for their value: the head of a Barbie Doll, a brass money clip, a Bic lighter. But he didn’t even keep them. He had lost interest in anything but the bullet. He’d get off the bus and sit at the playground on one of the swings, not swinging. He’d take out his bullet and stroke its shiny head, sometimes whispering to it with his mouth, sometimes telepathically whispering.
Marcus considered showing his school buddies the bullet. Sometimes he ached to. But he resisted because he knew they might tell the teacher or even try to steal it. He was not very close with any of the other boys anyway. They lived in other neighborhoods. They liked sports while he liked drawing. He knew they viewed him differently, like some sort of harmless yet odd species of bird. They were not necessarily cruel, but Marcus could sense their distance from him.
After a week, Marcus decided to quit interrogating the bullet. “Maybe I’m pestering my pet bullet,” he thought. “No wonder it won’t speak to me. Maybe it needs a little breathing room.” So, Marcus left the bullet in a small plastic sandwich bag on his bedside table. He didn’t carry it around, he didn’t put it under his pillow at night. He wanted so badly to touch it, but resisted. In the bag it stayed for a good ten days. Then Marcus decided he had waited enough.
Marcus wanted to know what was inside of a bullet. “What is a bullet’s skeleton like? Does a bullet have a brain?”
During his free period, Marcus went to the school library and tried to find a book about it. There was none. So the next day he went to the computer lab, got onto a computer and Googled. He found out that most bullets have powder inside and small metal pellets. He couldn’t find anything about bones or a brain. Maybe, Marcus thought, a bullet’s guts are different from a person’s but it still might have a soul that nobody can detect. Maybe not even bullet experts understand.
Marcus wished he had x-ray vision so he could see deep inside his bullet. “Maybe a bullet is like an egg,” he thought. “Maybe inside a baby bullet waits to come out.”
Or maybe a bullet is not alive outside of a gun. Maybe it can only come to life when fired. “Maybe my bullet is dead,” Marcus considered, “or waiting to be born.”
What does a bullet fear? What does a bullet dream? What does a bullet crave?
Marcus was not stupid. He knew that a bullet was a man-made thing, essentially a piece of metal. But how could anyone know for sure, he thought. Often he had wondered what made a person a person. Of course there were organs and bones and blood. A heart, a brain. But what was inside of all that? There had to be something. What makes a human being more than a creature that can talk? What makes a bullet more than a piece of metal that flies? A bullet, too, might contain some mystery, something like a spirit swirling below the surface somewhere—the way Aladdin’s lamp contained a genie.
At the kitchen table, Marcus makes himself a peanut butter sandwich. On this day, his mother did not return home until after 9:00 p.m. It is not the first time he has had to sit at the playground in the dark for several hours then wander Kmart’s aisles only to be kicked out by the security guard at closing time. He had watched his mother in his head working hard at the shoe lace factory, as usual, although the factory has been shut down for years. The windows are even boarded up. It seems, to Marcus though, a place that a mother would work. Still chilled, and very hungry, Marcus shivers under the single light bulb over his head and gulps down his supper.
Through the kitchen wall, Marcus can hear his mother’s voice, and a man’s. He hears this nearly every night and has become good at blocking it out. He has nice conversations with his mother whom he places in the kitchen. It is like a doll’s house, he thinks. His mother is his favorite doll. He tells her about his day at school since the mama doll asks. He shows her treasures he’s found that day at the playground. He makes her laugh with stories about each object. She prepares hot food, simple but tasty. But this day Marcus is tired and listens. In the bedroom, the talk between the real woman and the man has stopped. Marcus hears the predictable grunts and moans and the squeak of springs. He hears the bed’s headboard getting louder thumping the wall. Then silence.
Any minute now his mother and the man will come out of the bedroom. Marcus wonders if the man will be a new one. His mother will either exit the apartment behind the man and return later with another man, or she’ll sit on the couch and smoke a cigarette. She might tell Marcus to bring her a can of beer if there is one in the fridge. She might notice something in her son’s eyes and tell him to quit being such a goddamn judgmental prick. And doesn’t he have homework or something to do? “Why not just go to your room and jack-off for all I care.”
Marcus takes the last bites of his sandwich with him to his bedroom. He closes the door. He lies on his bed, staring at the ceiling. He suddenly realizes his mistake. No bullet would speak to him from under a pillow. “How could I have been so stupid? But it might if I hold it all night while I sleep. That way I’ll show how much I really care, and make it feel safe and warm against my skin. And maybe then I’ll remember something in the morning.”
Marcus closes his eyes, the bullet in his clenched fist. He can hear footsteps, muffled voices, the apartment door opening, closing. He concentrates with all his might, telling the bullet he’s sorry for not better understanding. Tonight, when sleep finally comes, Marcus tells himself, he’ll finally get it right.
Neil Carpathios is the author of three full-length poetry collections, as well as editor of the newly released anthology, Every River on Earth: Writing from Appalachian Ohio (Ohio University Press, 2015). A short story was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize (from the same story collection in-progress) by Lime Hawk Quarterly. He is an associate professor of English and Coordinator of Creative Writing at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio.