Some ten years ago, Jack came to the orphanage dressed in some suit and a tie, totally overacting the part of a wanna-be good parent to an orphan child. Lizzy walked him through the institution. Her tour took place under the usual classical music they kept replaying for the impression of high-class. The kids in the room had crumbled at the window to watch their new hope of escape from this place. I remember sitting on the bed reading a book, which I did most of the time. Not that the eight-year-old me understood what was going on in all those books, but it did offer some form of an escape. I was starting to see something outside of the borders of this place.
Jack was a bit different than the rest. As Lizzie and he entered our building from the courtyard, all the carefully watching eyes ran and became ears at the door.
“So, you are looking for a six to eight-year-old girl to adopt, if I understand correctly.”
The boys let out disappointed sighs.
“That is right, missis Lizzie.”
“Miss Lizzie, please.”
“Of course, excuse me.”
I couldn’t imagine anyone being more self-conscious about not being married than Lizzie. It was like all she ever wanted in life, and instead, she had us: dozens of kids who were not her own. I used to think she kept us here to take revenge for the child she never had herself.
The boys left to their corner, the girls fixed their hair and went to the playing court.
The door opened.
“Well, Mr. Jack, this is our six to eights. Kids, say hi to Mr. Jack.”
“Hello, Mr. Jack.”
I looked up from my book. I realized he was looking at me and quickly shifted my gaze back down.
“Those are our beautiful girls. Jannie, she’s a perfect dancer, aren’t you? Katie, our little princess, she loves to play with her dolls. Jeanette is our little artist…”
I always called this part the walk in the zoo. I looked up one more time, to find his gaze was still on me. I couldn’t concentrate on the book anymore.
“And I see you are looking at Jacqueline…”
“Jackie,” I corrected.
Ms. Lizzie threw one of her looks, I ignored her and looked back down at my book.
After 15 minutes, Lizzy returned.
“Jacqueline, pack your stuff, Mr. Jack is taking you. He’ll be a good father.”
The first question in my mind was – why? Why would anyone need me? What would they do with me? The kids looked at me with hateful eyes. What did I do to deserve this? I walked through their gazes like a witch would walk in front of the Catholics before being burned at stake. Annie came and gave me a hug.
“Congrats Jackie, I’m so happy for you!”
“Thanks, Annie, I will miss you. Take care.”
Lizzy stood at the door. Jack was waiting for me by his khaki Jeep. Lizzy gave me a hug, which felt weird. I never realized how large her breasts were until now.
We were driving in the countryside. He told me to move to the front seat after we had left the city. There was folk music playing in Jack’s car and it smelled of worn leather, he would sometimes hum along with the music. He didn’t seem to mind my silence.
“So, let’s get to know each other, I’m Jack.” He gave me his right hand.
“Jackie,” I gave him my left.
“What book were you reading there, Jackie?”
“Yeah, well. Not much to choose from. They mostly had just fairy tales. Whenever I’d find something a little different, I’d just take it.”
“How old are you, Jackie?”
“Eight, in a week.”
“You read like an older person,”
“tell me, Jackie. Do you like guns?”
I was sure that something was different about Jack. He asked this so seamlessly like it was a normal question to raise to an eight-year-old.
“I don’t know. Do you?”
“Very much. Weapons are power if you know how to handle them. Have you ever tried shooting from one?”
I imagined Lizzie cocking a gun and handing it to Katie and Jeanette and Jessica in their pink princess dresses. Just the thought made me chuckle.
I realized Jack was seriously waiting for an answer, so I said.
“Never had the chance.”
Was I feeling unsafe around Jack? Not at all. He made all of this seem normal.
“You leftie, Jackie?”
“Good, so look carefully.”
We were in Jack’s garage. At the time it was a place where there were just guns. A ton of guns. And bullets, cases, stands, and tools to fix and adjust them on Jack’s desk, at his disposal. The excitement that he felt at those guns made sense to me only much later. This overwhelming garage with its fluorescent lights that I spent my years of youth in was soon my favorite place in the world. I would come here to find refuge from the rest of the world. Jack even built a shelf and a little desk for me and started buying me books. “Those are no weaker weapons if you know how to use them, Jackie. But they’re tougher to handle. They can at times pierce stronger than bullets, though.”
Jack was strange, that’s what I liked about him. He was a father, a trainer, a. Better than anything, he was a mentor by nature.
“Alright, so here,” he took a semi-automatic Smith & Wesson’s, “clear,” Jack removed the magazine, “nothing in there,” he slid the barrel. “Nothing in the magazine. We’re just learning the grip today.”
He took the gun.
“You take it with your left hand, like this. And with the right hand, make a c-shape right underneath the trigger guard. You following me?”
“Angle the thumbs forward. The trigger finger,” he taps his left index finger on the body of the gun, “straight and off the trigger. Remember, when you are not shooting, Jackie, never have your finger on the trigger. Never. Is that clear?”
“Fine. Try gripping it yourself. First let’s get a good stance, all right? A little bit wider with your stance. There you go, there you go. All right, left-hand grip going to pick up the gun, finger off the trigger… Get that finger all the way up the frame here.”
It felt strangely right holding this thing. There was an interesting feeling of power, even when the barrel was not loaded.
“Now, Jackie, insert the magazine. It’s empty, so don’t you worry.”
“I don’t worry.”
“Stop, right now.”
He put the radio volume down, took my face, turned it toward him, and looked me straight in the eyes.
“Don’t you ever, do you hear me, Jackie, be stupid with this thing. Never underestimate those weapons you see here or handle them with disrespect. Are we clear?”
“Good, now back to training,” he smiled again and gave volume to the radio.
This was one of the longest days of my life. Since the morning I had been released from the orphanage, made acquaintance with Jack, moved into a new house, sat in the front seat of a car for the first time, and held a gun in my hand. And now we were sitting by a lake in front of Jack’s house, while he fished and I watched. It was sunset, and I first took a good look at Jack.
He had scars on his face and a ring mark on his left ring finger. His cheeks were either pressed in or his cheekbones were pushed a little out, even now I don’t know which was true. Jack’s body wasn’t meek, he had a strong build and hands twice the size of mine at the time.
I had never been by a lake, and this was the first time I met a sunset outside of the orphanage. The pink sky was being reflected by the water of the lake, and it all seemed like one big block of pink paint. For the first time, I felt so free.
“Do you like it here, Jackie?”
“Yeah. Can I ask you something?”
“Why did you decide to take someone. I mean from the house.”
I caught him off guard, I could sense:
“Sometimes you feel like you have seen everything in your life.” He lit a cigarette. It was the first time someone smoked by my side. Couldn’t say I didn’t like the smell. “And like you can’t really do anything new, like look at this sunset. I’ve seen it a thousand times. I’ve seen other kinds of sunsets too, Jackie - in the mountains, in big cities… At some point, things lose their magic to you, Jackie. It won’t make sense now, but you’ll get what I’m saying someday.”
He didn’t answer my question, but I didn’t feel like asking again.
“What do you do with the guns.”
“You’ll see tomorrow.”
I had my own room. The bed was a little flabbier than the one I had in the house; I didn’t mind. I could tell Jack tidied up the room the best he could, though Lizzy would still call it a dirty mess.
I didn’t know anything that was waiting ahead. I still didn’t completely trust Jack. The curtains were swaying in front of the window and making lace-flower-shaped shadows on the ceiling. I couldn’t sleep.
I realized Jack had put three books by my table. I turned on the night lamp and began leafing through them.
“So, which one did you chose?”
“The Nineteen Eighty-Four one.”
“Wasn’t it too much?”
“I don’t know, I fell asleep halfway through the first page. Why would you put it there if you thought it’s too much?”
“I don’t know, I don’t have any fairy tales in my house.”
We stopped the car. There was another, very similar car, parked by this wheat field where we stopped. Three men, who I later came to know as Tversky, Sharp-Joe, and Hank were having beers outside of the cars. If I had seen more movies, I would perhaps find the scene extremely cliché. When we joined them and the five of us stood together, I felt like one of the little dwarfs looking at four Gullivers.
“This is Jackie. She’ll be just looking today, but she might be joining us later.”
They seemed all more or less the same type, but each had something completely of their own. Tversky almost always walked shirtless and had tattoos stemming from everywhere. The impression was that he got most of them out of sheer boredom and always let his tattoo artist improvise. The icons were mostly tigers, lions, wolves, and other dangerous seeming animals. Tversky was probably the kindest soul I ever came to know.
Sharp-Joe was the slimmest of them. He always wore the same blue cap. I have never seen his head without the cap, actually. I’m not even sure if he takes it off in the shower because I have occasionally seen water drops hanging from its edge, even when it didn’t rain for weeks. Sharp-Joe was the joke maker and he definitely spoke the most.
On the contrary, Hank rarely ever said a word. He occasionally would hum to the country songs and look outside the window when we were riding in cars. Sometimes he’d look at a quiet landscape and say something like “that’s all you’ll ever need, Jackie,” and turn right back around. It was calming to be around Hank, although it could get a little boring, even for me.
At the beginning of those meetings, I kept hanging by Jack, I think that’s what made me more attached to him. But then “the guys” would start taking me to places with them, one would take me to the mountains, another one to the seas. Once Joe even took me to an attraction park where I rode my first rollercoaster at thirteen. Jack became my closest friend of them all.
The first time I saw them we went hunting.
We entered the forest from a clearing and walked a path that the guys had walked on thousands of times. It was my first time ever in the forest.
This is this tree, and this is that tree. Look Jackie, a squirrel, look Jackie, footsteps of a bear! Quiet, Jackie. There’s a deer.
A deer! I had read about deer, even seen them in some films, but a real-life one was something entirely different. Not nearly as cute as Bamby. This dear seemed as real as I was. The guys waited. Jack was pointing his gun but he was not shooting even though the deer was still. Later I discovered, he was waiting for the animal to look at us, to get a face-on headshot. That way the deer would immediately fall, it wouldn’t escape or suffer.
She looked at me. I looked at her. It was like a beautiful beast was staring at you from a mythical book. And as we looked at each other, Jack said:
“Close your ears.”
Fire. Birds took off from the trees. The eyes of the dear popped straight out of the skull. I closed my eyes. The myth of the creature became a dead cadaver of flesh, blood, and gore.
I stayed motionlessly in the same position while the guys high-fived each other. It was the first time I encountered death.
We were sitting by the lake again at sunset. Soon this became a usual thing in my new life. New habits and places have a way of getting into you. After a couple of weeks, my skin was getting darker, I started to smell like the woods, like water. I was sweating more. My thoughts were shifting in a different direction than before. There was less order in our lives with Jack, we were freer, yet I felt this was more right.
That day I was quieter than usual, although there were more impressions and feelings than ever before.
“Jack, did you feel something wrong while shooting that deer?”
“I was waiting for you to ask. You get used to it, Jackie. It’s the way of life. We don’t slaughter these animals for fun, we eat them, just like lions eat zebras.”
“It seemed to me you were having fun.”
Jack took a stone from the ground.
“Jackie, do you see that rock in the middle of the water?”
“Try to hit it with this stone.”
I got up and Jack lit a cigarette. The first throw flew too left.
“Here’s another one.”
The second throw, flew too right.
After about ten more stones, I hit.
“Did you see? Right in the heart!”
“That is why we were having fun. It’s not every time you get a perfect shot. I chose you out of all the girls in there because you had the hunter’s eyes. You don’t have to shoot deer if you don’t want to. You don’t even have to come hunting tomorrow. But when you find your deer, when you find that goal against which you have a single chance – hit or miss, I want you to go for it, and I want you to be ready to hit. Are we clear?”
“Good, let’s go inside, it’s getting dark.”
He took the bucket of fish and we went home.
I’m standing in front of Jack’s stone. The final lesson you taught me, the lesson to be alone. I go back to the garage. The well-familiar weapons are staring at me, reminding of you. I never held one after the deer incident. I decide to take the Smith & Wesson’s and try a stance.
Jack was the man of metaphor. He was a natural-born teacher. He needed me, to have someone to pass it all on to, and I needed him, to grow up. I cock the gun. Apparently, Jack knew about the illness and came right to the orphanage from the hospital. I aim. It was a snap decision of a moment. I found out later about this from Tversky. Shoot. I hit the target.
The last words of Jack: “Aim, and shoot. There is no feeling like that.”