Nearing the corner I held the rifle steady, my trigger-finger taut. My heart thumped with this simple thrill. These new guns were quick to fire, and accurate, but we’d yet to work out how to store two rubber bands, so I still only had the one shot. I couldn’t waste it. Halfway to the corner, a blind angle obscured by honeysuckle, I paused, listening.
The guns reflected my basic designs filtered through Grandpa’s expertise. They’d become increasingly elaborate over the years, the trigger mechanisms more effective, more responsive. They were table-sawed, routed, and drilled on the woodworking equipment he kept in the garage, beneath the gaze of two vintage Playboy calendars tacked beside the pegboard, which I stared at as discreetly as possible.
Grandpa and I spent innumerable afternoons together, finding as many ways to pass the time as we could. We had a hard time with board games because he never let me win. He’d sink my ships and obliterate my planes. At seven I was not yet learning tactics fast enough to outpace the frustration of certain and spectacular loss. But he did this because he loved me. Victory must be earned, despite asymmetries on the field. So while Grandpa would gleefully broadside my frigates in the vintage games he’d bought decades before, I would take no prisoners in our hunts outside, circling the old house in East County's chaparral hills, weaving between the stunted plum trees and Fords parked parallel in the driveway, ‘86 and ‘97. I was nimble and quiet, still a child, and he was a happily retired produce clerk now leaving middle age. I made up for the tactical imbalance with my sheer dexterity, a lanky boy who played AYSO soccer and rode his bike as often as possible. Firing the perfect shot, sniping him with a rubber band from ten paces, did feel earned.
In a year we’d move an hour further from Grandpa. I’d begin growing older much faster, and those golden afternoons would be revealed as a fragile and lucky knot in our lives, a convergence that would never recur. But I didn’t know that yet.
I crept onward. There was a small clearing beside the patio, where a few weeds curled around sawhorses and paint buckets. The large plastic drums storing rainwater were full, and despite the silence seemed to hold a resonance, as if stepping too loudly would cause them to reverberate and give my position away. I avoided the clearing and stuck to the sidewalk. I knew the dirt, the same decomposed quartz familiar to hikers across Southern California, would crunch under my shoes.
After listening for footsteps in the driveway, I wheeled round the side of the house the way I’d seen space marines do in the trailer for Starship Troopers. Grandpa, traveling the opposite direction, had taken the corner at exactly the same moment. Despite our heightened reflexes, we somehow surprised each other, shooting our rubber bands simultaneously and flinching, each of us waiting for the sting.
Later in life I would find guns like those we’d made for sale at a toy store. It occurred to me that other people living other childhoods made things like them, not just Grandpa and me. With their clean lines and orange tips, these seemed strangely cheap, despite their professional design. So much of the satisfaction Grandpa and I found was in the work around the play, the work that allowed the play to occur. To simply buy the gun, turn around and shoot your aunt or nephew, felt too effortless. Cruel even. How easily should one be able to pull a trigger? I’d like to think our fantasy encompassed more than violence.
After rounding the corner and firing, both of us expected a dart of pain, but none came. I was learning not to flinch, never to flinch, but Grandpa was someone I could flinch around. So we both just stood there, slowly noticing each other’s confusion: no one had been hit. The guns were empty but nothing had happened. We looked in wonder, realizing at the same time what had occurred, how lucky it was. The two rubber bands had collided in midair and tangled together, falling to the sidewalk directly between us both.
I have no great memories of successful shots by either of us. The story we remember was about the time we both missed.