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The Girl by Joe Hessert
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The Girl

by Joe Hessert

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About Joe Hessert

Joe Hessert earned his MFA at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and is the founding editor of ARDOR Literary Magazine, his short stories have recently found homes in The Los Angeles Review, New Haven Review, Pebble Lake Review, and McSweeney's (Web). He lives in Maine with his wife, Danielle and his dog, Jake.

            The girl hadn't meant to kill the man. No, not really. She had merely meant to stop him - to halt this intruder on the stairs and to keep him from her wounded mother—fluttering against the railing like a bird just flown into a window. The girl saw her mother's blood on the deep-pile stain-resistant Berber carpet—fabric her father had installed in the stairwell and upstairs hallway of their split-level Billerica home during the summer the girl had turned eleven—and something caught within her chest. Her Pop had ripped out the old carpet himself and she had watched him roll it and carry it outside, shirtless, his back and shoulders covered in fine dust and wiry hair. When her father brought in the new carpet the girl did a small, celebratory sashay on the plywood subfloor and looked down at her Pop—watching him pound the carpet tight into the back of each stairwell tread. He had used a padded tool that turned his meaty thigh into a hammer.

            The girl was fourteen now—the tallest in her ninth grade classroom—and in the last six months she had blossomed into the sort that boys went wild for. She wasn't wild for boys yet. Not really. There was a hunger in their eyes she didn't yet share—the sort of hunger she recognized in the man before her: a stranger that had pushed their doorbell and then struck the girl's smiling mother in the teeth, forcing her small body into the stairwell.

            From the landing at the top of the stairs the girl saw his darkness and knew that there was only one thing.

            Another child may have screamed or cried or rushed the man or done nothing, but the girl slid like a shadow down the hall and into the guest room. She opened the closet door and pulled a stool from beneath the line of sport coats her Pop had worn to his office every day until he was killed in a car crash the year before.

            There, in the dark, she could smell the way he used to smell.

            The girl reached for the shelf atop the closet and found a cardboard, royal blue shoe box, shrouded in a film of dust. Inside was the pistol her father had taught her to shoot in the glorious weeks leading up to his death.

            The girl's Pop hadn't taken her to the local shooting range—choosing instead to take the Mass Pike west until they arrived at a secluded gravel pit. Years later, the girl will still remember this place. She'll be able to recall the smell of pine and the way golden pin-oak leaves clotted in the eddy of a nearby stream. She'll remember the electric recoil of the pistol in her hands that first time ... the way the gun erupted—a living, wild thing. Years from now the girl will drive her son to this area, thinking that he should learn to shoot in the same place she learned—wanting to share her father's magic with her boy. She won't be able to find this gravel pit—perhaps it's gone forever—and the girl will suffer the sharp cut of her father's loss again, a second time, seated next to her only child. She will keep this heartache private—smile for her son in a way she knows her father would for her.

            The pistol is just as her father left it and she remembers how to load it, lift the safety and pop the first round in. She thinks to slip on her Pop's protective eyewear and as she lowers her father's Howard Leight ultra lightweight folding earmuffs over her ears, the sound of her mother's screaming disappears. It is easy, then, for the girl to walk into the hall and sight in on the stranger pressing down into her mother. The girl lifts her arms the way her father showed her when they aimed at empty soda-cans in the October chill less than two years prior.

            The truth the girl learns in the next instant is something that she could never have realized when she stood before her father's peaceful body, tucked safely into a polished coffin at Sweeney Memorial on Concord. She learns that there's a terror that seizes all men in the moment before their undoing. It's a cold realization that she will carry privately for years—a truth she will not tell her son, decades later, when she crouches beside him in some different gravel pit—so similar to the one that she remembers—and steadies his small, trembling hands. She'll pull his warm and anxious body tight against her, instruct him to take a breath and hold it, and she'll remind him to keep his eyes open on the exhale—to maintain perfect focus in the moment he takes the shot.