Home Alone

I walk over to the console TV and pick up the gun. It’s small, and my 10-year-old hand wraps easily around it. I slip my right index finger neatly into the loop and press gently against the trigger, not pushing down but holding it the way Michael Douglas does in “The Streets of San Francisco.” The gun is silver and shiny, snub-nosed and Saturday Night Special come to mind now, though at the time phrases like those don’t exist in my grade-school vocabulary.

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With my back to Debbie, I ease my finger off the trigger and open my hand on the grip, willing myself not to move too quickly.”

I stand next to the TV, gripping the gun. It’s heavy, surprisingly so, and the metal feels cold, like a fresh can of Pepsi on a hot summer day. I raise the gun in front of me, straighten my arm, and turn and face my friend, Debbie. I point the gun at her chest and squeeze the trigger, but it’s harder to move than I thought and the metal won’t budge.

“You know that’s a real gun,” she says, giggling.

Only I don’t know. Why would I?

Debbie is a year older, but we’re in the same grade. We have the day off from school and we’re spending it at her house. I told my parents Debbie’s mom would be there, but her mother works and Debbie always stays home alone. I said yes when Debbie called because I didn’t want to tell her that I’m not allowed to stay by ourselves, and I would never invite her to our house because I’m not allowed to watch TV during the day. Debbie says we can watch “Ryan’s Hope” and “All My Children,” maybe even “General Hospital.” We’ll eat candy and chips for lunch.

A few minutes before we find the gun, we’re standing in the kitchen, trying to decide what to do, when Debbie opens the door that leads to the basement.

“Want to look around?” she asks. “Karl’s at work.”

Debbie’s 19-year-old brother, Karl, lives in their basement. Today is the first time Debbie invites me to go down the dark, narrow stairway.

The basement is gloomy, the only light comes from high windows that open to the blacktop driveway. It’s set up like an apartment; wood paneling; stained, brown shag carpet; an old couch with holes in the arms and brown corduroy cushions that form a perfect V where it sags in the middle. The console TV is against the opposite wall. A square of sunlight hits it like a beam, illuminating the gun.

When we go down the stairs, Debbie’s dachshund, Schatzie, follows us only as far as the first step, her front paws on the stair and hind legs still on the kitchen floor. Debbie gets to the basement and whistles for the dog to follow her, but Schatzie won’t move. Instead, Schatzie backs up into the kitchen and whines. The dog understands what Debbie and I know all too well.

“If Karl finds out we’re down here, he’ll kill us,” Debbie says.

Danger permeates Debbie’s house, in her older sister Ingrid’s cigarettes, in the tall, brown bottles of German beer her dad drinks day and night, and in the motorcycle and sidecar that sit in pieces in the garage. Debbie talks about boys at school in a way I don’t quite understand, and when we climb the ladder to the loft her dad made by laying sheets of plywood along the beams of their garage, she teases me about my clothes and shushes me when I sing along to the weekly Top 40 on her AM radio.

Debbie tells me a lot of things that summer that I’m not ready to know, like it’s cooler to mouth the words to songs rather than sing them out loud; that a French kiss means using your tongue; that after you light a cigarette you should blow the smoke sideways and not straight in front of you. That’s what Ingrid does when she talks to Karl’s friends.

So when Debbie tells me the gun is real, I smirk. Having a real gun in her house is just one more thing Debbie knows that I don’t, and today I refuse to give her the satisfaction.

“No kidding,” I say.

I lower my arms, turn around and put the gun on top of the TV. With my back to Debbie, I ease my finger off the trigger and open my hand on the grip, willing myself not to move too quickly. It’s hard, because my hand suddenly feels like it’s burning.

I decide I want out of the basement.

“Did you hear that?” I ask. It’s quiet, but I turn my head as if to follow a sound. Debbie plays along. Her brother is supposed to check on us on his lunch break. He works at the gas station down the street.

“Let’s get out of here,” Debbie says, running past me and taking the steps two at a time. I follow her, bolting up the stairs and slamming the basement door behind me.

Schatzie watches us from under the kitchen table, ears flat against her head. She puts one paw forward, then another, then bolts across the floor and into the dining room. The sound of her nails clicking against the linoleum makes us both jump. We look at each other, then burst out laughing.

It takes a minute for us to catch our breath.

“Do you want something to eat?” she asks.

“I want another Pepsi,” I say.

Debbie pulls two cans from the refrigerator and picks up her sister’s pack of cigarettes from the table. We go outside, and we don’t talk about the gun.

A year later we’re no longer friends. Instead, Debbie and a girl named Angela start hanging out on the playground after school, showing off hickeys they get from junior high boys. They steal stuff from my desk and leave anonymous notes in my locker, pretending to be my secret admirer. In high school, there will be rumors about them skipping school and one of them, I forget who, gets pregnant. In eleventh grade, Debbie will drop out and not come back.

But on the afternoon of the day we find the gun, Debbie walks outside and shouts something over her shoulder.

“Don’t forget the matches.”

I grab them off the table and slam the door behind me.

Ellen Fowler Hummel writes creative nonfiction and the occasional short story. She is managing editor of mutterhood.com, an online literary and photography magazine that she cofounded, and she writes about creativity on her blog, Jump the Page
Photo by Ellen Blum Barish

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