J.M. SCOTT - PERPPERLAND
“Let’s see, Gatorade or Sprite,” Thomas Gunderson debated. His hand wavered between the two beverages. He knew that neither of the drinks were entirely healthy, but felt that if he selected Gatorade, he was at least treating his body a little bit better. Thomas picked up the cold, plastic bottle and rolled it across his forehead. He looked around to see if the cashier was watching. He wasn’t, so Thomas put the bottle back in the cooler and grabbed the one next to it.
“Get on the ground, now!”A voice echoed near the front of the building.
Thomas peered down the aisle.
Standing in front of the counter was a grizzled man, face scarred with dark black hair that jutted out in all directions. He looked as though he lived in a tent under the city’s only bridge, and Thomas winced a little when he thought about what the man probably smelled like. Acidic,
with a pungent odor of dirt and uncultured flesh that curtailed into something that a man could bump his head on.
“I swear to God, I’ll blow your friggen’ head off,” the man said.
Thomas noticed he was pointing a gun at the clerk’s chest. He opened the bottle of Gatorade, took a large swig and then put it back in the cooler.
The cashier fidgeted and then scratched his face as he removed the folds of green from the register.
“Hurry up, man,” the gunman said. “I’m gonna’…”
“Excuse me,” Thomas interrupted, walking down the aisle.
The man paused and turned his head slightly. Then, he shook off the distraction as if the voice was a figment of his imagination.
Thomas moved a little closer. He raised his fist to his mouth and coughed. “Excuse me,” he said again.
The man spun around.
Thomas raised his hands to his chest. “I’m sorry to bother you,” he said.
“What do you want?” The man bellowed. He pointed the gun at Thomas. His hands were shaking, so the muzzle of the weapon swayed in a web of haphazard directions.
“You’re never gonna’ maintain trigger control if you keep shaking like that,” Thomas advised.
The man turned and looked at the cashier, who shrugged his shoulders.
“Trigger what?” The man asked. The exacerbation in his voice was apparent.
“Trigger control,” Thomas repeated. “And that’s a beautiful Glock. Zev magwell, Taran Tactical sights. Do you use that gun for competitions?”
The robber snapped his head back toward the cashier. The young man pointed his finger at his temple and made a circular motion as if to indicate that Thomas was crazy.
Fatigued, the man switched the pistol from his right hand to his left, and then pulled back on the slide, allowing it to freely snap forward. He almost dropped the gun in the process.
Thomas dipped his hips a little when it looked like the firearm was going to fall. “Easy now,” he said. “Just roll your thumb around the slide which will help make an easier transition next time.”
“You’re insane,” The man said. It was as if Thomas and his antics had taken the spirit out of the robbery.
Police sirens blared in the distance.
Thomas looked out the window. He stammered. “… I’m going to reach into my pocket. I have something for you.”
The man punched his other arm forward and gripped the pistol with both hands. He took a deep breath and raised the sights onto Thomas’s forehead.
“Here’s my card,” Thomas said, pulling out a small rectangular piece of paper. “My name is Thomas Gunderson, and I run a tactical shooting kind of survival business.”
The man reached out, took the card and flipped it over. “Prepperland. Never heard of it. Besides, I’m ex-military. I don’t need shooting classes or survival training.”
Thomas sighed. “Of course,” he said under his breath.
There was an uncomfortable pause. The man looked to the side and took a few moments to digest the information that Thomas had presented.
“How is your pricing?” The man asked.
“Fair and competitive,” Thomas returned.
The man shoved his pistol into his waistband as the sirens drew closer. Thomas waved his head toward the back of the convenience store. The man turned, and then ran toward the rear of the building.
Five police cars screeched to a halt. One of the vehicles jumped the curve and tapped the front panel of glass of the store with its bumper.
The cashier stared at Thomas and shook his head. “What the fuck was that? That guy could have killed us.” He punched the packages of cigarettes above his head.
“Not with that pistol, he wasn’t. There was no magazine in the magwell, and when he racked the slide, a cartridge didn’t eject. He said that he was ex-military and those guys don’t make mistakes like that. He didn’t want to hurt anybody. He is probably just down on his luck.” Thomas turned his head toward the rear exit of the building. “ Besides, I just picked up another client.” He snapped his fingers and smiled before the police blew through the front door with their guns drawn.
“Bear is gonna’ love this,” Thomas said, lowering himself onto the ground.
Later that day, Thomas bounded down two of the concrete steps leading away from the police station. He paused before taking on the final six steps. Leaning down, he rubbed the top of his knee, making sure to put pressure on the soft spots of the tendon.
“How are you doing, old man?” A voice called out from the inside of a beaten-up 1967 Mustang. “Knee bothering you?”
The woman inside the car smiled at Thomas. Free from crow’s feet, her eyes sparkled even from the inside of the vehicle.
Thomas chuckled, once again realizing that Bear was the woman of his dreams. Young, funny, beautiful, and a helluva shooter.
He remembered the first time they’d met at a gun show. He had to ask her a couple of times what her name was when she introduced herself to him, not entirely believing that her name could be Bear. As it turned out, the moniker was only her nickname. It seemed that she had taken on four little boys in her fifth grade class after they’d teased her about her ponytails. She’d won the fight and went from being known as Cynthia Ringo, to the rough and tumble Bear.
Thomas rubbed his knee a little. “I’m fine. Too many of my famous Mel Gibson roll and shoot scenarios when I was younger.”
“You haven’t done a Mel Gibson in years,” Bear added. “I’d like to see you hit six steel targets while tumbling on the ground, now.”
Thomas hobbled down the rest of the stairs.
Just as he reached the bottom of the steps, four men on bikes zoomed by him; throwing Thomas off balance. One of the men shot him a look of superiority as if he owned the road when he stopped to grab the water bottle underneath his seat.
Thomas stared at the cyclist and shook his head.
“What’s the matter? Don’t like athletes?” The man asked.
“Athletes? Athletes? You’ve got to be kidding me. Just because you squeeze your fat ass into a polyester shirt that has logos on it like you’re sponsored by a major company - but you’re not – doesn’t make you an athlete. As a matter of fact, I’ve been to plenty of Super Bowl parties, but now that I think about it, I’ve never been to a Tour De France party. You know why? Because nobody gives a shit about biking.”
The man got off his bike. He pointed, and was about to say something, but Thomas cut him off.
“You know…” Thomas said. There are plenty of things to worry about while you’re driving. Yes, I said driving. Teen drivers, road conditions, the weather, old people behind the wheel, mechanical malfunctions, and of course just plain old acts of fucking God. But you bastards need to get your cardio in for the day, so you act like a car and put yourself in harm’s way. Go ride around in a circle on a track somewhere you sorry son of a bitch, and quit thinking you’re an athlete. You’re a white elitist who probably hails from an overpriced Silicon Valley city where you all walk your yellow Labradors every day and drink your shitty milk tea.”
The man bit his lower lip. He was about to take a step forward when one of his buddies stopped him by moving his bike between the two men.
“He’s not worth it,” the second bicyclist said.
“Not worth what?” Thomas shot back. “It always cracks me up when people say that. What exactly am I not worth? Do you really think the courts would throw him in jail for taking a poke at me? I mean he might like prison, being that he has a fondness for tight little spandex shorts.”
The two men got on their bikes. The one Thomas had insulted flipped him the bird before riding off.
“Does this mean I won’t get an invite to the Olympics?” Thomas yelled. “Seeing as how you guys are such incredible athletes.”
The two men ignored him.
“Hey, you,” Bear yelled out from the driver’s side of the car. “Would you just get in and quit picking on bicyclists.”
Thomas opened the door to the passenger’s side of the vehicle and slipped into the seat. “Athletes,” he said. “You shouldn’t be considered an athlete for riding a toy you got under the Christmas tree when you were ten years old.”
“Just stop,” Bear said. “Some people don’t consider what you do a sport. And professional shooters also wear those kind shirts. Yes, the ones with all the logos.” Bear raised her hands over her head.
“Well, wait until the shit hits the fan,” Thomas said. “At least I can shoot my way out. Those guys can try to pedal their way out of an apocalypse.”
Bear started the car and put it in drive. “You certainly are a grumpaluffagus, today,” she said. “And you’re also white, so it kind of takes the steam out of an insult like – You’re a white elitist.”
“It was all I could think of.” Thomas wrinkled his lips and huffed before slumping into his seat. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” he said. “I need a nap.”
The ride to Prepperland was short. The compound stood just a few miles off the main highway, down a dusty road. Thomas and Bear saw the steeple of the church they lived in at least a mile before they hit the front gate. The structure had been on the property since it was purchased in the early 1930’s by Thomas’s grandfather. It was used as a Presbyterian place of worship for many years up until WWII when the family started to store recyclables in the main hall to help the war effort. Since then, the entire structure was converted to a studio-like residence since it was extremely spacious, save for a couple of unused rooms that Thomas always talked about renting out to the right person, and boasted the same amenities as a modern day apartment. That is, until the years crept up on the structure. The roof needed to be replaced, the entire building needed some paint, and the steeple had seen better days. The church’s reconstruction had taken a back burner to other projects, but it was always a consideration when Thomas had a little extra money.
When they got home, Thomas was eager to go over the applications for the new courses, but first, he made sure to hide the loan overdue notice from Bear. His father had taken out a line of credit using Prepperlannd as collateral a couple of years back to cover some of the businesses operating costs, and when the title transferred over to Thomas, so did the debt. He’d always been a firm believer in tackling one problem at a time. The issue of the remaining loan amount on the property would have to wait until Thomas could figure out how to soften his delivery. Now, his first priority was to get some new students enrolled and shooting. When he opened the envelopes, he couldn’t help but be disappointed.
“We only have two sign-ups?” Thomas stressed.
Bear wasn’t listening. She was playing the latest first-person driving game on her phone. The clicks and beeps of the interface were drowning out Thomas’s voice. “Wait, what?” She said.
“Two signups,” Thomas repeated.
“Yeah, two. It’s all good.”
“Do you know what ammo costs these days?” Thomas asked.
“Um, a lot?”
“Is that just your opinion, or are you trying to keep me quiet?’
“Quiet,” Bear said.
“Fine, what?” Bear asked.
“Just get back to your game.”
Thomas rubbed his temples and paced.“What about a promotion of some type?”
“Shit,” Bear said, listing hard to the right.
“Put that damn thing down,” Thomas barked.
“Fine,” Bear threw her phone on the table and snapped her gum. “I need to redo my ponytails any way.”
“Try something different, today. You look like Harley Quinn,” Thomas said. “I guess. Except for the makeup and clown suit.”
Bear flicked her left ponytail and strutted to the bathroom.
He lifted the list of sign-ups. It wasn’t as if it was going to take him long to review a couple of applications.
“Pathetic,” he said.
Thomas reached down and picked up a lighter that looked like an AR-15 with an NRA logo on the side.
“You’d think people would want to learn how to keep themselves safe,” he said. “You’d think they’d be smarter.”
“Stop complaining,” Bear shouted from the other room. “Work with what you got.”
Thomas lifted the first application up by its corner with his thumb and forefinger like it was dirty. His face wrinkled, but not in a way that said he was pleased. “Kerena Faux,” he said. Thomas stared at the scraggly writing. “I’m surprised she didn’t fill this out with brown crayon.”
He flicked the application aside and went to the next submission.
“Sam Spreckles. Dear God.” He lifted his hand to his brow. “Now, we’re training nerdy white kids.”
“Don’t judge,” Bear yelled from the other room.
“He’s probably going to suck. I don’t want a bunch of lame asses to make up our membership,” Thomas returned.
“You don’t know that, stupid.”
Thomas shot his head to the side to hear the popping noise that made him feel like he was purging the stress from his body.
He was about to make some notes on the files when Bear interjected. “Maybe this guy is okay. Don’t presume.”
“Presumption keeps us safe,” Thomas insisted.
“Well then,” Bear added, “Why don’t you presume to put your real name on the company flyer?”
Thomas bit his lower lip. “Because Richard Raper isn’t the kind of name that promotes our business well. We’re Preppers. Gunderson is more appropriate.”
“You’re just mad that Richard Raper could also be construed as Dick Raper.” Bear held a towel to her face and snickered.
Thomas heard the muffled breaths from the other room, but held his retort. He looked at his watch before moving on to the next file.“Damn,” he said doing a double take. “I’ve got to get to the range. I’m supposed to give Carl a deposit for the training next week.”
Bear came out of the bathroom. She was rubbing the top of her head with the towel she had laughed into earlier. “Do you have enough in your account to cover the fees?” Her words slurred and faded with each wipe of the cloth over her face.
Thomas grabbed his wallet off the table. He hesitated before opening the fold. Even from a short distance he could see that he only had three dollars. “Where’s the checkbook?” He asked.
Bear threw the towel over a chair and held her hands to her hips. “I think it’s in the truck’s glove compartment.”
“Thanks,” Thomas said. “I’ll be back later.”
Bear looked at him with a stitch of sadness like a woman that was about to fill a homeless person’s cup with a couple of quarters.
Thomas didn’t catch the look. He stared at the tattered carpet on the inside of their living area. “It’s looked better,” he said.
“And it will look good again, soon.” Bear said, trying to be reassuring. “See you later.”
Thomas waved and then headed for his truck. He went to open the door when he noticed his left front tire was almost flat. “Great,” he said, throwing the manila folder with his current sign-ups onto the passenger’s side of the vehicle. He looked back to see if Bear was watching. She wasn’t, so he went into the tool box that was bolted to the back of his truck, and retrieved an old baseball cap and a fanny pack. The cap he’d had for years, it was tattered with an image of Scooby-Doo embroidered across the top. The only thing Bear hated more than the hat was the cheap amusement park fanny pack that he sometimes wore. He mostly donned the apparel when Bear wasn’t around; decidedly keeping the items in the toolbox of his truck, so that they wouldn’t find their way into the garbage bin someday.
“Let’s get this over with,” he said.
On the way to the range, he passed two filling stations. Both of them had closed down. His truck limped down the highway until he saw his exit. “A little late, but he’ll still be there.” He felt his truck list to the left and then bounce up and down. “No. No. No,” he said. He put the truck in park and swung the driver’s side door open. His tire was completely flat, and was half hanging off the wheel. “Shit!” He grabbed the paperwork off the seat next to him, locked up his vehicle and jogged down the empty highway.
Thirty minutes later, he heard the distinct sound of gunfire. The snap in the air from multiple firearm reports increased when he drew closer to the range. Thomas knew that Carl would be pissed that he’d forgotten his eye and ear protection, but his priorities were to get the paperwork turned in and the range paid for. Safety would have to take a back seat to his business needs.
“Hey, Carl,” Thomas said, walking up to the range office. He was holding the folder with his student’s paperwork.
“What happened to you?” Carl asked. “Looks like you went swimming.”
Thomas pulled his shirt away from his chest. It peeled away like wet toilet paper off a countertop.
“Truck broke down,” Thomas said.
Carl adjusted his Glock Perfection hat. The brim was scarred and the fabric under the iconic logo was stained from years of hard work on the range. “You could have called. I’d have given you a ride.”
“No need, really. I need the workout anyway.” Thomas handed the folder to Carl.
“Any good prospects this time?” Carl asked. He thumbed through the files. “Jesus Christ,” he added. “I can’t wait to see this one in action.” He ran his forefinger along the name on one of the applications. Carl sifted through the remainder of the paperwork and raised his eyes over the bend in the folder. “I don’t see a check,” he said.
“Oh, right,” Thomas said. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his checkbook. “Got a pen?”
A voiced bellowed from behind him. “Writing checks again, I see. Any money in the account this time?”
Thomas turned around to see Dale Stone standing behind him. As usual, Dale was decked out in full combat gear. Shooting glasses, tactical pants and vest, custom ear protection with his Team 5 Response logo emblazoned on the side of the safety equipment; Thomas compared his look to a strutting peacock, beautiful at first until you realize they are as annoying as hell and shit all over your lawn.
“Hello, Dale,” Thomas said. He tried not to make eye contact.
“I’m just fucking with you,” Dale said. He put his arm around Thomas’s shoulder and squeezed. “I know times have been tough over there at Prepperland. He canted his head and smirked at Carl behind Thomas’s back.
“We’re just getting our footing,” Thomas said, slipping under Dale’s arm.
“Hey, I care. I really do. Your father ran the best prepper compound in the state for years. I just think it’s too bad you can’t do the same.”
“Dale,” Carl interjected. “Come on. We’re all professional here. The gun guy niche is small enough. I’ve been fighting the county to keep this place open for years. The last thing we need around here is two clubs going at it. Besides, the two of you are the reason I have to take heart medication. Your continual bickering is going to put me six feet under.”
Dale backed away. “No worries, Carl. But I’m a club. I have a legitimate business. Prepperland is on its last leg and you know it.”
Thomas put his fist in his palm and cracked his knuckles.
“I can put forty guys on the line during the same weekend. What can he do?” Dale pointed at Thomas. “Five, maybe. And those five won’t end up being tactical operators. Hell, they probably won’t even end up taking another class from him. But they will come over to Team 5 Response.”
Thomas stuck out his chest and stepped forward. The big man retreated slightly.
“You guys knock it off!” Carl yelled. “I don’t want to see any of that shit around here.”
Dale wrenched his jaw from side to side with his free hand, even though Thomas hadn’t thrown a punch. “That would have been nice,” he said. “But I’ll bet Bear would have had the balls to actually go a couple of rounds with me.”
Thomas lurched forward. “She probably would go toe to toe with you, I mean, when I do, I usually come out ahead, like at nationals. Didn’t I beat you in the divisions that we competed in together?”
Dale tried to grab Thomas by the lapel when Carl jumped in between the two men.“Stop it now or neither of the two of you will conduct business on my range, ever again.”
Both Dale and Thomas didn’t move.
“Now, you get back to your team,” Carl said, waiving Dale away. “And let’s get your paperwork finalized.” He said to Thomas.
Dale spit on the ground. “All right, Carl. You’re the boss.” He turned and lumbered toward the shooting bays. “And, nice fanny purse,” he yelled before disappearing into the range.
Thomas intertwined his fingers and rested his palms on the top of his head. He took a deep breath and exhaled. “I like my fanny pack.”
Carl cleared his throat. “I know. He’s an asshole, but he brings me a lot of repeat business and his credentials are good. The guy is a Silver Star recipient for God’s sake.”
“Doesn’t act like it,” Thomas said.
“He doesn’t have to. He’s built a reliable brand. His instructors are all ex-special forces or police officers. It’s hard to beat his numbers.” He looked at Thomas and squinted.
“And I’m just the son of a weirdo old prepper. Is that it? I couldn’t possibly compete with a guy like that.”
“That’s not what I said,” Carl snapped.
“You didn’t have to.” Thomas huffed. “Look, I’ll get the money to you by Wednesday. Okay?”
Carl shrugged his shoulders.
“Okay,” Thomas repeated.
“Yeah. All right. See you Wednesday,” Carl said. He turned and walked toward his office.
Thomas put his hand to his brow and peered into the sun. “Hottest part of the day. Great. Bear’s going to worry.” The cracked road he’d jogged in on looked like it had extended further into the landscape. Thomas knew the illusion was something his mind had cooked up like the immense pain from a shot in the arm by a doctor. The prick was minimal. It was the lead up to the prick was horrifying. Prick, he thought. You’d better get moving.
Two hours later, Thomas rounded the dirt path that led to Prepperland. He saw the sign in the distance. It had seen its better days. A series of mismatched letters in different sizes reading: Beer, Ammo, Bait and Lotto, adorned the face of the chest high marquee. Eight neon lights on the inside of the sign were supposed to come on at night, but Thomas was lucky to get three working, and two of those would flicker out of sync. He always wondered about the beer, bait, and lotto sections of the sign. Maybe his father always wanted to turn Prepperland into a convenience store. One day, Thomas would get a new sign, but for now, the advertisement was serving its purpose.
“We need some business,” he said, bending over to place his hands on his upper thighs. “Sorry, dad. I’m trying.”
“Who are you talking to?” He heard a voice say.
It was Bear. She was walking toward him.
“Nobody,” Thomas said. “Just mumbling to myself.”
Bear gave him a big hug and brushed his bangs away from his sweaty brow. “No you weren’t. You’re a liar,” she said, smirking.
“Did you get it all done? Is Carl ready for this weekend?”
Thomas wheezed and shifted out of her grip. “Almost,” he said. “I really do need to submit my range fees in full. I have to get him some cash by Wednesday.”
Bear plunged her head into his chest. His damp shirt made her ear cold, but she didn’t care.
“Here,” she said, placing something in his hand.
Thomas cupped the gift. He knew what it was by the look in her eye. Bear didn’t have to say a word.
“I’ll just pawn your grandmother’s ring. I’ll get it out of hock before you know it.”
“Really, I will,” Thomas said. He put the ring in the front pocket of his jeans.
“Let’s focus on this weekend,” Bear said. She pushed away from Thomas like she hadn’t enjoyed the embrace.
“We have to come up with a plan. Let’s get inside. You, take a shower. I’ll get to work,” Bear said.
She led him into the compound and pushed him toward the church that doubled as their house.
Thomas undressed and turned the two soap scum stained knobs in the shower. He noticed something wasn’t right. Only one valve produced a flow of water. “Please, let it get hot,” he said. Reaching into the stream, Thomas let his fingertips tickle the drops of water. He pulled back and then moaned. “I thought I was only supposed to take one of these when I was horny,” he mumbled before plunging into the ice cold water. Bear thought she heard a high pitched yelp come from the bathroom, but ignored the annoyance. She scanned the files. “We really have our work cut out for us,” she said, taking notes on the side of one of the applications.
A short ten minutes later, Thomas came out of the bathroom. He was shivering.
“Dry yourself off and help me make up an outline for this weekend,” Bear said. “Oh, and by the way, I have entered myself in a three gun competition.”
“When is it?”
“I have to look at the dates. It’s sometime toward the middle of the month.”
“Plug our courses,” Thomas said.
“Of course,” Bear said, grinning.
Thomas threw on an old pair of sweats and a pullover sweatshirt. He sat next to Bear.
“So, from what I remember, neither of them has ever held a firearm before,” Thomas said.
“That’s right,” Bear added. “So, we need to go over the basics of marksmanship again. Get them all on target before moving on. We also need to review the four point draw and some limited footwork.” She looked at Thomas, who was using his pinky finger to clear the residual water out of his ear.
“Agreed?” Bear asked.
Thomas held his hand in the air open palmed and Bear slapped him a high-five.
“Been a long day,” Thomas said. “Let’s get some shut eye.”
“And cuddles,” Bear said in an exaggerated, high pitched voice.
“And cuddles,” Thomas returned. He hugged her tightly.
Thomas tried to sleep, but every time he nodded off, he was thrown into a nightmare. There was someone chasing him. He was armed, but his pistol wouldn’t come out of his holster. He pulled. He struggled. But the weapon wouldn’t budge. Finally, his legs gave out. At the same time, he jerked hard. The motion threw him out of his sleep. He heard Bear grunt, but she was a heavy sleeper. He rested his hand on her hip and was thankful she hadn’t woken. For the rest of the night, he stumbled in and out of sleep. When he got up the next morning and opened his hand, something fell onto the floor. He looked down to see the ring Bear had given him. He examined his palm and saw the outline of the piece of jewelry pressed into his flesh. He wondered how long he’d been holding the ring, and when during the night he’d decided to grab it out of the pocket of his jeans.
He turned to see if Bear was awake. The little high pitched wisps she was making told him she wasn’t. He dressed without making much noise and headed to the pawn shop. During the trip, he never put the ring back in his pocket. He pressed it harder into his palm until it was time to give the piece of jewelry to the shop keep. Even then, when he held his hand open, the ring wouldn’t fall. He had to pry it free from the soft meat of his inner grip.
“Here you go,” Thomas said to the pawn shop owner. He didn’t make eye contact with the man. When the paperwork was done, Thomas didn’t bother counting the cash. He jumped in his truck and headed for the range.
When he pulled into the parking lot, the spaces were mostly empty.
“Huh,” Thomas mused. “It should be busier than this today.”
He rolled his window down and listed his head toward the open space.
“What the hell,” he said. “Why isn’t there any gunfire?”
Thomas jumped out of his truck and walked toward Carl’s office. He was about to round the corner when Dale Stone blocked his way.
“Move, Dale,” Thomas said. “I’m not in the mood right now. I’ve ‘gotta’ get my payment to Carl…”
“Carl is dead,” Dale interrupted. “Died last night of a heart attack.”
Thomas couldn’t move his legs. He felt like there was no air around him, but somehow, he was able to breathe.
“A heart attack?” He asked.
Dale cleared his throat.
“Right,” Thomas said. “Okay then. I mean…”
“Look, Gunderson… we might not like each other so good, but we both respected Carl and loved the old coot.” He turned away from Thomas. “I’ve managed to talk to the county and keep the range open under my management.”
“I kind of figured,” Thomas said.
“I hate to kick a man when he’s down… but,” Dale turned around and crossed his arms.
“But what?” Thomas added. “What’s on that pea brain of yours, Dale?”
“Nice, Gunderson. Classy as always.”
Thomas slapped the envelope with his range payment against his thigh. He couldn’t believe Dale was going to be in charge of the business. The only other place that had a full action range was a good three hours away. He thought about his father. Would the old man be shaking his head with his hands resting on his hips? Thomas thought. Prepperland is doomed.
“I’ll cut you a break, though, Gunderson. I’ll let you work here repairing the wooden target frames and collecting brass. Hell, you can even bring Bear along. Wouldn’t mind having something like that about the range,” Dale said.
Thomas thought about breaking the big man’s jaw. He closed one fist, and then relaxed when the seed of a crazy idea began to germinate.
“Work for you? Huh, Dale,” Thomas said. “You know that’s never going to happen.
Dale waved his hand as if to say, oh well.
“But I got something better for you, Dale. Something you can really sink your teeth into.”
Dale leaned forward. “Go on.”
“Instead of me paying this range fee…” Thomas held up the envelope, “… I want to apply this toPrepperland’s entrance fee in the Freeman Tactical Shooting Competition.”
Dale laughed. “The Freeman Competition is in one month. I’m sure Carl already has all of the applications and the accounting in place. All I have to do is stage the event.”
“And you’ll get the chance to beat me once and for all,” Thomas said. “I know it bothers you that you’ve never beaten any of my times, or high hit factors, in a major USPSA match. It must be hard being an ass hair’s away from stomping on a guy that was never in the military. A guy that was never close to receiving a Silver Star because he was at home getting drunk and watching Netflix.”
Dale took off his Team 5 Response cap and beat it into his left hand. It was almost as if Thomas could see the hairs on the back of his neck stand tall.
“This is a team shooting club event for charity,” Dale said. “But I think I can accommodate you. Each competitor will run five different stages, one will be a classifier, of course.”
“Of course,” Thomas added.
“I will do the design, but they will be officially sanctioned USPSA stages. Four will be Comstock and the classifier will be Virginia. Two of the shooters on your team can be experienced, but the other two have to be brand new.” He scratched the stubble on his chin. “And…, our little side wager only applies to the last stage.”
“What are you suggesting,” Thomas asked.
“I have an entire tournament to run. I can’t be worried about being an administrator, and a competitor. The team points from the last stage is what will determine the winner of our little challenge.”
The terms of the agreement weren’t exactly in Prepperland’s favor, but Thomas could deal with the arrangement. His shooters would, at least, get to run four stages as a warm up to the main event.
As far as the remainder of the tournament stages was concerned, Thomas knew the rest of it. The four shooters would be scored by where their shots landed on the target, and a hit factor would be calculated after subtracting any penalties like misses or procedurals. An overall percentage of where a competitor placed would determine how many points each shooter receives for the stage. Add the points up as a team, and the highest score would establish the winner of the tournament.
“Actually…,” Dale digressed. “I’m not sure that you’re even worth my time.”
Thomas knew the big man was almost there. Almost ready to take the challenge.
Dale was about to speak, but Thomas stopped him before he could start his sentence. “I’ll throw in the deed to Prepperland.”
“What?” Dale said, stepping back. “This doesn’t sound right?”
“You would own Prepperalnd. Tear it down, sell the land or start a new branch of Team 5 Response. You could build a small indoor range if you saw fit.”
“You’re not interested in the free shotgun if you win, I know that,” Dale said.
Thomas couldn’t believe Dale had figured something out all on his own. “Of course not,” he said. “If our team members get the overall highest number of points, I get a twenty year contract to use this range when and how I see fit. You, and the other businesses, would have to schedule time on my range.”
“You’re shitting me,” Dale said. “That would be a $200,000.00 dollar contract.”
“Yup. High stakes.”
Dale tried to find the angle. He almost shook Thomas’s hand twice, but regressed when he didn’t come up with anything.
“Cold feet?” Thomas said. “Yeah, I heard all of you aging war heroes go through that.”
Dale shot his palm into Thomas’s grip. “I’ve been waiting to kick some ass with my new STI race pistol here.” He rotated his hip toward Thomas to show off the shiny metal.
“Nice,” Thomas said.“Good choice.”
“You know it.”
Thomas pointed to Dale’s gun, “Now, you know everyone isn’t going to have that kind of hardware, so we all shoot a production pistol and the power factor will be minor.”
Dale frowned, but understood the advantages of using a race pistol against any other gun that wasn’t of comparable mechanics.
“Fine,” Dale barked. “Now, get the hell out of here. My team has a competition to prepare for.”
Thomas raised his hands up in front of him. “Fair enough.”
Dale saw the envelope full of money. He reached out and cleared his throat.
“Oh, right,” Thomas said. He handed the envelope over to Dale. “See you in a month.”
Dale took the money and stuffed it in his pocket.
Thomas turned and walked toward his truck. He looked into the sky. “I already miss you, Carl. I wish you were here.” The gravity of everything that had just happened locked onto Thomas like invisible shackles from a prison cell. After all, Carl was the man that really taught Thomas how to shoot. When his dad was busy on the range with his students, Carl would pull Thomas aside and run him through training scenarios over and over again until Thomas was more than excellent with a firearm. As he walked to his vehicle, Thomas almost stumbled, but knew Dale would revel in the reaction if he were to witness Thomas under stress. He got into his truck and drove off to tell Bear what had happened to Carl.
The next morning, Thomas got up early to prep the compound for the instructional part of his new class. He looked at his watch. “About an hour,” he said. He scanned the area, but didn’t see Bear. He checked his watch again and wrinkled his brow. “She always beats me out here.” He surmised that she’d taken the news about Carl pretty hard. He’d been a friend of theirs for a long time, and when Thomas told her what had happened she replied with one word - Oh. He knew she’d grieve in her own way. Hell, he couldn’t blame her for not being up before him.
Thomas started across the barren landscape that was littered with small rocks and old, tarnished brass. A few fifty-gallon, plastic blue barrels were out of place, but all in all, it looked like a shooter'sworkspace. Steel and paper targets rested off to the side of the yard ready to be placed in order, so that his students could simulate taking cover and moving around threats. He went over to the gear and started to set up a mini-stage, when he saw the first car pull into the Prepperland parking lot. A young woman got out of the vehicle. She was wearing black sweats with the word PINK embroidered across her backside like a bumper sticker advertising her fashion sense. She didn’t even bother to turn her music off while she grabbed her gear from out of the trunk of the car. Some kind of hardcore rap song was thumping out of her speakers. Thomas thought that her choice of tunes was odd for a little white girl, but he didn’t care. He knew that he was pretty much out of sync with the younger generation. It’s probably what every young person is listening to these days, he thought. Even from a distance, Thomas could see that her makeup had been done to perfection, and she was wearing fake eyelashes.
“Kind of makes you wonder,” he heard Bear say from behind him. He turned to see her holding a Styrofoam cup full of coffee. “If I had to guess, that’s Kerena Faux,” she said. Bear took a delicate sip, and then handed him the cup. “I’ll go introduce us.”
Thomas went to set up a table to complete the paperwork for the day and finalize everyone’s registration. He saw one more car pull into the parking lot. “Well, at least everyone showed.”He laid out the documents, unfolded a raggedy chair and sat with a pen in his hand. He tapped the tip of the writing instrument against the table and increased the frequency of the tapping when the students approached with their gear. Kerena Faux was the first shooter to come to the table.
Thomas stood. “Good morning,” he said. “I’m Thomas Gunderson.” He reached out to shake her hand.
“Wait,” Kerena said. She reached up and pulled at one of her eyelashes.
“Did you read the course description?” Thomas asked. “In it, there was a list of attire options that would make your experience here a little more…,” he searched for the word “… productive.”
Kerena finished pulling at her eyelash. “No,” she said. “I don’t have time for that shit.” She unzipped her sweat jacket, exposing a low-cut tank top. Thomas turned his head after noticing that she was very well endowed and sported at least four inches of cleavage that was sure to make a great brass catcher.
“Well, okay,” Thomas said. “Then sign here and I’ll take the rest of your sign-up fee.”
Kerena signed next to her name. Thomas recognized the scraggly writing from her application.
“Are you renting today?” He asked.
“Renting? Aww hell naw,” she said. She reached into her bag and pulled out a Smith and Wesson 696. The cylinder on the revolver was as long as a pack of gum, and the barrel was a good eight inches long. She waved the behemoth piece of steel around like she was conducting an orchestra.
Thomas grabbed the gun out of her hand. He inhaled deeply through his nose and then let it out slowly as a calming effort.
“Hey,” Kerena barked.
“The first thing we are going to learn around here is gun safety. Set your stuff over there, and I’ll go and get you a real gun that you can work with.” Thomas said. “You’ll get this back at the end of the day.” He punched the gun at the air while he retreated to his living space to get Kerena a weapon that was a little more manageable.
“You can call me Foxy,” she yelled.
“Noooo…,” Thomas said. He rolled his eyes and then went to retrieve the equipment that she needed.
Later, he met the only other student that, he hoped, would save Prepperland. Sam Spreckles came dressed like he’d been parachuted from a plane that had taken off from Afghanistan. He sported matching tactical gear; the camouflage design on his pistol was coordinated with his hat and shirt. He donned a shooting vest adorned with two combat knives, four AR-15 magazines and ten shotgun shells. A medical pack was tethered to the small of his back and his tactical pants were tucked into his combat boots.
“Sir,” Sam said to Thomas while standing tall. His arm was bent at the elbow in a full salute.
Thomas smiled and returned a two finger salute like a boy scout. He leaned over to address Bear. “Kid couldn’t be any older that twenty.”
“He’s certainly dressing to impress,” Bear added.
“Who?” Thomas shot back. “The chick with the word PINK up her butt crack?”
Bear nudged Thomas in the side and then gave him a side hug with one arm. “Calm down, Ace,” she said.
Thomas turned to face the students. “Once your gear is stowed, bring what you need to the line over here, so I can go over some safety rules.”
The students looked at each other like two kindergartners who didn’t know where to sit.
“Are we shooting here?” Sam asked.
“No live fire yet,” Bear answered. “We’ll be using these.” She held up three bright orange firearms that were molded in the shape of actual guns. “We’ll get some live fire in later today.”
Sam lowered his head like he was disappointed that he wouldn’t be shooting something up sooner.
“Fuck yeah,” Kerena said. She fashioned her hand in the shape of a pistol, and made a pew, pew noise while she fanned her imaginary gun across the compound.
It wasn’t long before they were ready for instruction save for Kerena’s need to pee every five minutes. Thomas stood in front of them with his right hand resting on the top of his Glock.
“Okay, so once again, I’m Thomas…” he paused and stared in Bear’s direction for a moment “… Gunderson, and this is my assistant, Bear.”
“Right on sister,” Kerena said.
Thomas wrinkled his brow. “Yeah, anyway… Bear and I are happy to see all of you this morning, and I’ve got some great news. Since this course is over four weekends, we’ve been invited to test our skills in the Freeman Tactical Shooting Competition at the end of the month.”
Thomas heard Bear cough out loud behind him like she’d accidentally swallowed her spit wrong. He knew what it meant. He was going to get it later.
“Yes, the Freeman Competition. It’ll be a blast both literally and metaphorically.”
No one laughed at the joke. Thomas slapped his hands together.
“Is this your first time doing this?” Kerena spit out. “You look nervous. I mean, I don’t need a nervous instructor waiving a gun around.” She snapped her gum. Sam nodded in accordance.
Thomas took in a large bite of air. When he exhaled, the bite in the air from the chill caused his breath to fog.
“Look, I’m going to be straight with you guys. I have a lot of shooting experience, but my dad was the one that ran this business. He passed away six months ago, and yes, you guys are my first class,” Thomas said.
“Sucks,” Kerena interjected.
Sam raised his hand. Thomas pointed at him.
“Does this mean we get a discount?” Sam said. “I mean, usually, as an introductory rate, when there is a new instructor, they kind of…”
“No,” Thomas interrupted. “Let’s just get to work.” He thought about Sam’s suggestion for a moment before he moved forward with the training.
“I’ll tell you guys what,” Thomas beamed. “I’ll give you a year of free training if you compete in and do well in the Freeman Competition.”
Bear shoved him slightly after Thomas had made the offer.
“Sounds good to me,” Sam said.
“Yo, I’m in,” Kerena added.
Thomas pushed back into Bear. “Good then. We have a deal. Now…, we have a lot of work to do.”
“It’s going to be a long month,” Bear whispered to Thomas from behind him. Thomas raised one eyebrow as a gesture of incredulity before beginning his instruction. He went over the four basic safety rules of shooting:
He handed one of the rubber guns by the barrel to Sam. The young man reached out and grabbed the pistol grip, but immediately wrapped his index finger around the trigger.
“What did I just say?” Thomas barked. “Rule number one. Finger off the trigger until you have indexed your target and are ready to shoot.”
“Sorry,” Sam said. He released the training gun and then tried again. This time he took up the weapon in the correct fashion.
“There you go, bro.” Kerena said even though Thomas hadn’t solicited her opinion.
“Good job!” Thomas yelled, leaning toward Kerena while he shouted the statement.
Kerena moved back. It seemed that she got the point.
“Now, we need to get mobile. Sitting and listening makes us stiff. The two of you, run the outer perimeter of the compound twice,” Thomas ordered.
The two shooters started off slow, punctuated by Kerena telling Sam; this sucks, while they were starting their first lap.
Bear waited until the students were out of sight. She punched Thomas on the shoulder.
“Are you fucking crazy?” She said. “The Freeman Competition? Tell me what’s going on right now.”
Thomas recounted his deal with Dale Stone. Bear thought she was dreaming for a moment. Her mouth hung open to the point that she almost drooled down the front of her shirt.
“Did you even really think about this?” Bear said. “Team 5 Response is going to kick our collective asses and boot us out of here for good.”
“Look, I know this is unusual,” Thomas said. “But…”
Bear cut him off. “It’s insane.”
Thomas grabbed her by the shoulders. “Just hear me out. We’ll need a team of four. That’s you and me, and these two guys. We’ll work on their strengths and by the end of the month, we might have a shot.”
“How are you going to manage to train them to compete against these guys? Thomas, why didn’t you talk to me first?” Bear pulled away from his grip. “You know we’re in this together. You can’t just go and turn my life upside down along with yours.”
The words hit Thomas hard. She was right. He hadn’t considered how the decisions his ego made might affect her life.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know what else to do.”
Bear huffed. “So what’s your plan, Ace?”
“Well, we are going to shoot five stages, only one will be Virginia. This means that in the high point Comstock stages, we can train them on when to make up shots, how to play to their strengths, and how to read each target so that they can get the highest hit factor.
“All this in a month?” Bear argued.
“It’s going to come down to the team that scores the most points on the last stage.
The students rounded the corner. “Any chance they’ll be competitors?” Bear asked.
“Dad was a great instructor. He always told me that if you can make someone believe in themselves, they could shoot through the eye of a needle. I’m going to do my best with these guys,” Thomas maintained.
“Even the gal with the big boobs?”
Thomas chuckled. “Even the gal with the big boobs.”
When Kerena and Sam returned from their run, Thomas had set up a simple course of fire. He was happy that they were able to get on paper from the seven yard line. Kerena kept shooting low on the silhouette, and when Thomas tried to correct her, so that she’d be hitting center mass, she informed him with a flirtatious wink that if she was ever in a gun fight, she’d aim and shoot the guy in the balls.
Sam, on the other hand kept hitting the right side of the target. He was hitting the paper, but most of the time, his shots weren’t combat effective. Thomas was going to help him with his marksmanship, but decided to get through the drills for the day instead of overwhelming the kid with the idiosyncrasies of shooting. The rest of the training had gone as expected, and Thomas was pleased that no one had done anything unsafe that might lead to a negligent discharge. It was almost 3:30 in the afternoon, so Bear instructed the group in the fine art of turning and shooting before they let go for the day.
“You did pretty well, today,” Bear said to Kerena while the girl packed up her gear.
“Thanks,” Kerena replied. She lowered her head. “It’s just that…” she took off her sweater and shoved it into her bag. “… Nothing. Don’t worry about it.”
“We’re going to get to know each other pretty well over the next month. If there’s something you want to discuss, sweetie, I’m all ears,” Bear said.
Kerena pulled up on her sweats. “I want to be able to take care of myself. That’s all.”
“Really?” Bear added.
Bear sat next to Kerena, leaned over and swung her legs out and back like a little kid sitting on a park bench.
Kerena sat next to Bear. “About a year ago, I was at this party with my girls. You know, we was just chillin’ then these niggas’ came out of nowhere and started spilling drinks all over the girls. I was like, you didn’t just spill Hennessey all over my Jimmy Choos, and he was like Bitch, shut up. I went to the bathroom to get right, and this nigga’ came in behind me. He put his hand over my mouth and…” Kerena’s eyes welled up with tears. “I’m not saying that a gun would have helped. But I felt, I don’t know, helpless.”
Bear balled up her fist and patted Kerena softly on the knee. “Don’t worry girl. When we’re done with you, you’re going to be one bad bitch.” Bear winced a little. She was only a few years older than Kerena, but was never able to use the language of her peers very well. She hoped that she used the vernacular correctly and not made herself look like a total fool.
“I’ll have Thomas teach you how to do his famous Mel Gibson,” Bear said.
“Who’s Mel Gibson?”
Sometimes, Bear forgot that Thomas was fifteen years older than she. He’d introduced her to the Lethal Weapon films when they first met. He’d watch Mel Gibson do his famous shoot and roll scene in the first movie, and then go out and practice the maneuver trying to hit six steel plates. When he was on target, Thomas was amazing. He could knock down the plates over and over again without much effort. Bear had tried the move a couple of times, but only ended up throwing lead at the mountainside. All Thomas needed was a clear line of sight, and enough room to stretch out on the ground.
Kerena leaned over and gave Bear a hug.
“And next weekend, read our website and dress a little more appropriately,” Bear whispered.
“Fo’ sho’,” Kerena said. She packed the rest of her things and headed to her car. “Oh, and tell yo’ man he can hold my bang-bang until the end of the course.” She fashioned her thumb and forefinger in the shape of a pistol.
“I will,” Bear said. And then she whispered, “I will.”
Thomas had tended to Sam, giving him some encouraging words before the young man left. He met Bear in the middle of the compound.
“Well, what’d you think about today?” Bear asked.
Thomas bobbed his head. “Not too bad. Not too bad.”
They watched Sam and Kerena drive off.
Thomas pointed to their cars. “You know why Sam is here?”
“Gimme the scoop,” Bear said, hugging him around the waist.
“Sam’s dad is some kind of a military hero. He served two tours in Iraq, was awarded a Purple Hearts and two silver stars.”
“Impressive,” Bear added.
“Yeah, but Sam is not quite the military prodigy. He has a couple of medical issues that have kept him from enlisting. Nothing major, but his problems didn’t get overlooked. I get the feeling that this is his attempt to relate to his father, maybe even show him that he’s a soldier even if he’ll never serve.”
“That’s so sad,” Bear said. She scratched her head. “I’ve got an idea.”
“What is it?”
“Let me work on a few things, and then I’ll fill you in, okay?”
Thomas didn’t like mysteries, or surprises for that matter, but he trusted Bear implicitly. If she had some sort of harebrained idea, he knew that she wouldn’t let it come to fruition if it would do any harm to Prepperland.
“Now let’s get inside. I’ve got to get things ready for tomorrow,” Bear said, yawning.
“Tomorrow?” Thomas asked. “Oh, right. You’re competing,” he said, answering his own question. “Good luck,” he said, kissing her on the forehead. He reached down and rubbed the top of his knee.
“Bothering you again,” Bear asked.
“It’s okay. Gave out on me a little today, but I’ll be fine. I’m just worried that it’ll buckle during something important.”
“Don’t worry about it. If it does, just drop to the ground and do a Mel Gibson.”
“Very funny,” Thomas left off.
That night, Thomas went in and out of the same nightmare he’d been having for the last couple of weeks. Each time, he was in the same situation. He’d try to draw his pistol, but it wouldn’t come out of the holster. The figure chasing him would get closer until he woke up with a jerk, the sheets damp with his sweat. Thomas sat up. He was in the middle of the bed.
“Bear?” He said, looking around the room. She was nowhere to be seen. He smacked his palm against his forehead. “The competition… right.” Thomas laid back down and tried to get some sleep. He was almost out when his cell phone rang.
“Hello,” Thomas said.
“Yes, is this Mr. Gunderson?”
“It is. Can I help you?”
“Sir, my name is Steven Reed, and I’m the administrator in charge of the Tricon three gun competition.”
“Yeah, right. My girlfriend is shooting with you guys today.” Thomas rubbed his eyes. “What do you need?”
“Mr. Gunderson, there has been an accident involving a firearm.”
Thomas sat up. “What? Who… what’s going on?”
“I’m sorry to inform you that one of the people involved in the incident was your girlfriend. Bear, that’s what she goes by, right?”
“Yeah,” Thomas answered.
“Well, I really don’t know how to tell you this, but it’s not like we’ve ever had anything like this happen before.”
“Get to the point,” Thomas grumbled.
“One of our shooters slipped in the gravel, and when he did, he spun around, his barrel faced the other competitors.”
Thomas felt his hands start to shake. The man had said he, so it wasn’t Bear that had had the negligent discharge. It meant something else. Something that Thomas just couldn’t fathom.
“Mr. Gunderson, Bear was hit by a round that was discharged from the shooter's rifle when he slipped, and I’m sorry to inform you that she was unresponsive when they took her away in an ambulance.”
“Wait, what?” Thomas replied. “Unresponsive?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
“She’s been transported to St. Anderson’s hospital and…”
Thomas didn’t press the disconnect button. He heard the man’s voice trail off while the phone dropped to the floor. For a second, Thomas thought he was dreaming until he looked around and noticed there was no figure chasing him. No figure, but also, no Bear. He sprang out of bed, grabbed a set of mismatched clothes and ran to his truck. He had trouble getting the key into the lock. He was stabbing at the door while trying to make sense of his surroundings through the haze. His eyes were swollen and he couldn’t remember where he was supposed to go - to the hospital, to the range – wherever it was he prayed the phone call was wrong. Thomas decided to go to the hospital while he drove down the highway. He saw the sun peek over the mountain range. He remembered the first morning he and Bear drank coffee under a blanket while sitting against the Prepperland sign. The sun was coming up, and they were cuddling to stay warm. He knew he loved her back then, but he’d never put a ring on her finger. Why? Thomas didn’t know. But he was always sure of one thing… there’d be more time.
Thomas pulled into the parking lot of the emergency room. He ran through the double doors as they whooshed open.
“Can I help you?” A receptionist asked.
“Bear,” Thomas shook his head and then digressed. “I mean, Cynthia Ringo.”
The woman’s face soured.
“Oh, let me call a doctor. One will be out shortly,” she said.
“Now!” Thomas yelled.
His tone flummoxed the receptionist. She got out of her seat and ran into the back room.
Thomas was about to jump the counter and search for Bear himself when a doctor came into the reception area. His arms were outstretched and he was shaking his head.
“No, no, no,” The doctor said. “We have other patients here. Please, come with me.”
Thomas followed the doctor. He didn’t know why, but he was looking for the word Morgue on the overhead signs. It just seemed to him that that’s where they were headed. They snaked through the hallway, first three right turns, and then a left. Thomas was trying not to picture Bear lying on a table, dead. He wondered where the projectile had hit her and hoped it wasn’t in the head. He didn’t think he could take it if he couldn’t look at her face one last time even if she wasn’t alive.
“Where are we going?” Thomas asked, wiping away the tears.
The doctor stopped in the middle of the hallway. “We were able to resuscitate her. She’s in a coma, but she’s very much alive. The stray bullet hit her in the arm, it was when she fell and hit her head on the cement foundation near some benches that gave her a head injury. She scored an 11 on the Glasgow Coma Scale, which a good sign. I’d give her a few weeks before she’s lucid enough to be able to function as usual.”
Thomas felt his legs start to give out. He hit the hospital floor hard. The word alive ran through his head several times and increased in intensity as each syllable rang out with a song that Bear might be okay. He saw her face, her smile and then heard the sound of her laughter while the world around him retreated into darkness.
“Mr. Gunderson. Mr. Gunderson, can you hear me?” The doctor said.
Thomas opened his eyes. He saw the white ceiling of the hospital room come into focus. Every pit and raised piece of ceiling texture came into view. Thomas rolled over and then pushed himself up to his knees. “Where is she,” he asked.
“She’s in room 1A,” the doctor replied. “It’s right in front of you.”
Thomas stood. His feet were dragging, but he managed to press up against the door frame. There, in a hospital bed, with tubes protruding from her face and arms laid Bear. Thomas didn’t know if he could even enter the room. His head sprang forward, but his heart kept his body at bay. Taking a deep breath, he moved to the side of Bear’s bed.
He was about to say the first thing that came to mind, but decided not to utter the words – until we, or you and I. None of it made sense, so he reached out and stroked her hair. Thomas sat next to Bear for a couple of hours going in and out of different thoughts. He couldn’t focus on any one idea. He thought about their finances, then the future of Prepperland, and finally, how much he would miss her if she were to die.
Thomas looked at the clock and then at his watch to verify the time. Of course, his timepiece had ceased to function.
He squeezed Bear’s hand one last time and muttered, “I know what needs to be done, honey. I’ll take care of everything.”
Thomas left the hospital and headed back to Prepperland. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been by Bear’s side, but the thin veil of twilight had crept up around him. While driving into the darkening sky, a new kind of resolve shook the entirety of his being. He didn’t know where the feeling came from, but it was right there for him grab a hold of, and this time, he wasn’t going to let go until everything was okay. He was going to win the competition against Dale, and Prepperland would be there for Bear to see again.
That night, Thomas got up several times and tinkered with the equipment he’d need for the morning training session. When it was time, the first car that pulled into the lot was that of Kerena Faux. Thomas could hear the base from her stereo thump, and he pictured her with her head and gun tilted to one side like she was in a rap video. “Silly little girl,” he said, waving to her when she exited her vehicle. It wasn’t long before Sam arrived.
Thomas went over the safety rules again, and then supervised as they put on their equipment.
“All right guys, now that you have a little range time under your belt and some basic pistol skills, we’re going to warm up with a failure drill. When I yell out the word threat, you draw your pistol and put two in the chest and one in the head on the silhouette. Got it?” Thomas said. He was standing behind Sam. “Threat,” he called out. The piercing sound of gunfire rang out across Prepperland.
“Ouch. Shit,” he heard Kerena yell.
When Thomas looked around Sam’s head, he noticed that Kerena hadn’t put her hearing protection on.
“She’ll learn,” Thomas said. He waited for a moment and watched her lower the cups onto her ears. “Now, threat,” he commanded once again.
The students drew their pistols well from what he could tell, safe and only in the direction of the targets. The smell of gunpowder was quite pronounced and the crack that came from the expulsion of gas from the front of the barrel wrapped him in a dream. A dream that included Bear and Prepperland, forever.
Thomas looked at the patterns on the cardboard silhouettes. “Not bad. Not bad,” he said.
Sam raised his hand. “What is it, my man?” Thomas asked.
“When are we going to run and gun?”
Thomas thought about the request for a moment. He knew that the kind of movement that Sam was referring to had its complications. Prepperland was shy on space, the compound supported a small area where a shooter could only engage targets from one position. That was the reason he wanted to use Carl’s range for the advanced drills. There was much more real estate to work with. He peered down at his watch, but had forgotten that it was broken, so he shook his head to acknowledge to himself that he felt like an idiot.
“All right, then. We can’t do any elaborate drills that require a lot of movement, but we can use what we’ve got to further complicate this session. Let’s all line up right here next to me.” Thomas pointed to a spot on the dirt to his left.
Kerena was the first to line up on his right side. Thomas looked at the spot that he was pointing to in disbelief and waited until she had realized her error. He was willing to forgive the little mistakes; it was the big ones he was worried about.
“Use the cartridges in your dump pouch, and top off your magazines,” Thomas said. “Keep your pistols holstered. I need to throw some spray paint on the steel again.” He turned his back to his students.
Sam reached behind him and lowered his fingers into the mesh pouch. He felt a couple of bullets slipping around, the tips of the 9mm projectiles were hard to get a hold of, so he shoved his hand down even harder. The motion caused him to tilt to his right like a dog chasing his tail. Kerena noticed that Sam was struggling to grab his ammo, so she reached down to retrieve some of her own; her intent was to lend him some, so that they could continue the drill. She lowered her hips, and the grip on her pistol bit into her midsection.
“Shit,” she grumbled. To alleviate the pain, Kerena removed the pistol from her holster. Her finger wrapped gently around the trigger. When she reached back again, she gripped the frame a little harder. Thomas jumped when the shot went off. It was as if the world had slowed down and time was crawling past him like a caterpillar on a leaf. Before opening his eyes, he said a little prayer. The damage, the chaos, the death that could come from a firearm related accident flooded his brain. He turned slowly to see Kerena standing with her eyes wide. The pistol was still pointed in Sam’s direction, but the muzzle was slightly askew. Sam looked up at Thomas, and took a step to his rear. His legs folded, and Sam fell into the dirt. Thomas reached for the young man, but couldn’t get a hold of him. All he could feel was the coarse fabric of his jacked easing along his fingertips. Sam looked understandably shaken. Thomas thought he’d have grabbed the wound in pain, but Sam just sat there panting heavily.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” Kerena let out.
Sam pulled his foot back and up as close as he could to his chest. There was a nick in the rubber sole of his boot. The half crescent had almost reached up to his big toe.
“Jesus,” Thomas said, removing his Scooby-Doo cap. He slapped the padded dome across his thigh. “You all right,” he said.
Sam let out a guttural acknowledgement that he was okay.
“Kerena. Let me see your pistol.” Thomas reached out and took the firearm from the young girl.
“K,” Kerena said. “I just…,”
“Just calm down. Everyone is safe. Go over to the safe table with Sam once he catches his breath, but make sure you don’t have any ammo with you. Check his pistol. Make sure it’s unloaded; check again, and have him bag it, muzzle facing a safe direction. I’ll be right there,” Thomas said.
The two shooters made their way over to the table. Thomas placed his hands on his hips and looked skyward. “I don’t know how I’m going to make it through this, Bear,” he said. “I need you.”
Taking a breath of stale air, Thomas held it in for a couple of seconds before going over to his students. They had a lot of work to do before the tournament, and Thomas Gunderson was determined to teach them how to be shooters. Even if he had a mental breakdown trying to do so.
The day bit into the night, and Thomas sat with his back against the Prepperland sign sipping on a small glass of scotch. He felt bad about not visiting Bear earlier in the day, but knew that she’d have wanted him to keep building up the team. Stages, stages, he thought. What stages can we use to our advantage? He knew that Dale was a hot-headed, but the man wasn’t stupid when it came to tactics. He’d be at his best and would take a bulldozer to Prepperland as soon as the title passed to him. If, Thomas reconciled.
There was also the problem of finding a third man to compete. Thomas originally thought that he and Bear would make up half of the team, but that design had blown away like a sleeve of newspaper in a storm. One stage at a time. The game is won, one stage at a time, he murmured. I’ll find somebody. He took a sip of the amber liquid. It went down a little hard, but he knew to expect that from a 10 year old bottle. In the distance, Thomas saw what looked like a person walking down the road. Standing, he rested the glass of scotch on top of the Prepperland sign. The silhouette grew, and Thomas felt a hard pinch in the pit of his stomach. He didn’t need any more trouble. Not now.
The individual made a sharp turn toward Prepperland, but Thomas still couldn’t make out any of the man’s features. He reached down, like he was going to draw his pistol; a gut reaction that causality had driven into his brain with a whispery resolve.
There was no pistol. Not that he was going to draw, but the cold steel usually coddled him with a sense of security.
Some safety expert, he thought. I’m not even armed in my own compound.
As the man drew closer, Thomas readied himself for what might come. A verbal assault, perhaps something physical, his intent was unknown, but at this point Thomas didn’t really care. He would give as good as he got, so he raised his glass and choked down the last of his scotch.
“Hello,” the man called from the distance.
Eyes darting upward, Thomas replied before he even knew what he was saying. “Good evening. Can I help you?”
The man was now close enough for Thomas to get a good look at him. Cupping his chin while in thought, Thomas put the man at about forty-two years old, slightly older than himself. His features were calm that creased with a hint of experience coming from a couple of scars that ran down his face. Countenance aside, the man hinted at suffering, but managed to curtail any concerns that Thomas had about being dangerous with a slight, yet warm grimace.
“Don’t I know you?” Thomas said, squinting.
“Yeah,” the man answered. “The last time we met wasn’t under the best of circumstances.”
Of all the people Thomas knew, there was no question that this individual was set back somewhere in the obscure recesses of his discombobulated memories. He struggled, until he saw the man’s baseball cap that read 25th infantry division, and then - bam - there he was as clear as day. The robber from the convenience store; a little cleaned up, but it was him, nevertheless.
The man reached out and handed Thomas his own business card. “I just wanted to say thank you for what you did for me in that store. It’s been hard for me ever since I left the service – not an excuse mind you – but things haven’t been so good.”
The man turned to leave.
“Wait a minute,” Thomas said. “What’s your name?”
“James. James Warren. But my friends call me Titan.”
“Titan, huh…” Thomas said. “You’re not a very big guy.”
“You’d have to get to know me as a soldier. My battlefield presence is… well, big.”
“All right then, Titan. What was all that stuff with the pistol back at the convenience store? You didn’t handle it well, and there was no magazine in the magwell.”
Titan shrugged his shoulders. “My experience, like most military guys, is with a rifle. I never actually shot a pistol.”
“How are you with a rifle?”
“Fleas off a fly’s back.”
“Right,” Thomas thought for a moment about how he was going to ask Titan to stay and shoot for him. He knew the man was in no position to pay for lessons, but quite frankly, probably didn’t need much instruction anyway.
“Do you like scotch?” Thomas asked.
“Is it wet?” Titan replied.
The two men sat down and had a long conversation that lasted well into the night. In the end, Thomas Gunderson had a new shooter. He’d also thrown in a job offer to sweeten the deal. Titan would work part time getting things ready for the courses that Thomas was going to teach. Of course, Thomas had failed to mention that he might lose the title to Prepperland soon, but as he kept reminding himself, one problem at a time. He’d have to have a talk with Titan later if things didn’t go as planned. Thomas slept well that night, not amongst the dark dreams he usually had, but with a slight smile on his face that said that Dale Stone had finally met his match.
The training over the next weekend went well, Titan was introduced to the group, and Kerena didn’t accidentally shoot anyone, so Thomas viewed the training as a success. Kerena had a few problems clearing some of the jams that Thomas had intentionally set up, but with enough practice, all Thomas had to say was tap and rack, and she went on to clear her pistol with ease. He wanted to end the instruction early, so that he could visit Bear. He missed her, and it was only the fact that he was training for the Freeman Competition that kept him from going into a deep depression.
“Okay, guys. Remove your magazines and any rounds that you may have in battery, point your firearm down range and pull the trigger. Once your weapon is cleared, lock the action open and have one of your teammates check for an empty chamber,” Thomas said.
Once they were finished, Kerena called the group together. Thomas had exited the range and was about to leave when he noticed that his students had gathered in the parking lot.
“I don’t have time to see what’s going on,” he grumbled, driving off to see Bear.
Once his car was out of sight, Kerena came forward with her idea.
“We have some extra time today,” she said. “I say we go check out the competition.”
“Team 5 Response?” Sam asked.
“No shit,” Kerena snapped back. “They’re at the range downtown right now. Let’s take a ride over there and see how those niggas’ doing.”
“I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. Couldn’t we get into some kind of trouble?” Sam responded.
Titan cocked his head toward Sam; a scowl replaced the good humored smile he’d donned earlier.
“Are you serious?” He asked. “Trouble? What kind of trouble could we possibly get into by going to a public range to observe our competition?”
“I don’t know. Just trouble,” Sam added.
“I’m down,” Titan said. He looked at Sam and paused; waiting for the young man to look at him. “Do you have to ask your mommy?”
“Shut up, Titan. I can do what I want.”
“Good, then let’s go,” Kerena said. She walked over to her car and unlocked the doors by pushing a button on her FOB. Once they were all inside the vehicle, Kerena smirked before she started the car.
“Y’all ready for some muzakkk,” she said.
Titan and Sam winced a little, not knowing exactly what to expect. As the vehicle rolled out of Prepperland, the bass thumped, and Kerena bounced up and down in the driver’s seat mouthing the words to the rap song.
Titan leaned over to Sam. “I should have worn my hearing protection,” he said. Sam leaned back before pulling his hoodie over his ears.
Save for a little traffic, the ride to see Team 5 Response at the range was free of incident. Kerena made sure to turn her music off before they pulled into the parking lot.
“There they are,” she said.
Titan leaned over, almost pushing Kerena into the back seat as he tried to get a better view of the competition through the driver’s side window.
“Shit,” Titan said.
The members of Team 5 Response were running timed drills. Each competitor was decked out in Team 5 Response gear and ran the courses with little to no difficulty.
“They’re putting most of their shots on target,” Sam said. “Are you sure these guys are beginners?”
“They are supposed to be,” Kerena answered. “All of them, but that big guy over there, I think.” She pointed at Dale Stone. “That looks like the guy that hates Thomas. Bear had mentioned this guy to me during some lady talk. You know.”
“No, I don’t know,” Titan interjected. “Is it common to discuss other men just willy-nilly while you’re supposed to be practicing?”
Kerena waved her hand at Titan in dismissal. “Whatever bro. I’m guessing that’s the guy to beat, though.”
Dale stepped into the shooter’s box.
“Shooter, load and make ready,” a range officer commanded.
Dale drew his pistol, inserted a magazine and then pulled back on the slide.
The beep from the timer was audible from the parking lot. There were two targets in front of Dale. He drew his pistol; rapid fired five times into the first target, changed magazines and did the same thing to the second target, all in 2.43 seconds.
“I don’t know how good Thomas really is, but we can’t beat these guys,” Kerena said. Titan and Sam didn’t respond. “We should talk to him.”
Kerena started her car. Out of habit, she accidentally turned the volume all the way up on her sound system. When she did, the music thumped out of the speakers. Dale turned around to see the three Prepperland students scrambling to turn the music down.
“Ah…, the competition is conducting a little reconnaissance,” Dale said. “Idiots like that could only be Gunderson’s students.”
“Dale, come here,” One of his students asked. “I know that car, and that girl,” he said as Dale approached.
“Who is she?”
“Well, I don’t really know her that well, but she lives in the same complex as a friend of mine. Her father is a real bastard. He comes out and bangs on my friend’s door whenever we put in a late night out on his balcony. She always backs away from the guy, like she’s afraid of him.”
“Does she now?” Dale said. A sinister little smile stretched across his face.
He reached into his pocket. Dale pulled out a 9mm cartridge and examined its dimensions. “I wouldn’t worry too much about that girl, or anyone else over at Prepperland. They’re a bunch of nobodies,” he said. “But if they think they’re going to beat us...,” He held up the cartridge, “… Then they’re a lot dumber than they look.” He watched the vehicle drive out of sight. “Good luck, morons,” he said under his breath.
The next morning, Thomas was busy reloading some ammunition for the day’s training. He was using a fast burning powder and decided to increase the grain amount to make sure the ammunition would make the minimum power factor during a chronograph session that always preceded the tournament. Usually, he loaded his cartridges a little light to decrease the amount of recoil when practicing, but it was time that his students started shooting the exact type of ammunition they were going to compete with, and if there was one thing that Thomas was good at, it was reloading some excellent rounds. Reliable, powerful and accurate.
Kerena, Sam and Titan got to the compound early and were pounding on Thomas’s front door.
“What the hell,” Thomas said. “They’re a half an hour early.”
Kerena was the first to enter when Thomas opened the door.
“Have you seen those guys?” Kerena shouted.
Thomas held up his hands. “First of all, what guys?”
“The shooters from Team 5 response.”
“I have,” Thomas replied.
“There is no way we’ll beat them, boss,” Titan said. “I mean, I’m not afraid to go toe to toe with them, but beating them is going to be a tall order.”
Thomas pushed away from the reloader, crossing his arms indignantly.
“So, you guys are afraid?”
“Yes. I think we can safely say that at least Kerena and I are terrified of them,” Sam answered.
“Thomas, look, we like you, bro,” Kerena said. “But we’re way out of our league here.”
“I can’t believe this,” Thomas said. “You’re not even willing to try to save this place?”
“What do you mean, save this place?” Titan asked.
“I’m just saying that…,” Thomas stammered. “Okay, I have to come clean. If we don’t beat Team 5 Response, then I’m going to lose Prepperland.”
“So, this whole thing, the competition and everything, is about you, isn’t it? Kerena said. “We were never going to get a year of free training. I thought you were an upfront kind of guy, but I guess I was wrong.” Kerena waved her hands in the air. “I’m out.”
“Guys, wait.” Thomas implored. “Let me explain.”
“No need to,” Titan said. “I guess I’m out of that job, then.” He and Sam followed Kerena out the door.
“Since we’re done training, let’s go get breakfast, guys,” Kerena said. “This is wack.”
They all went to their separate vehicles and followed Kerena to the nearest diner.
Thomas beat his fist against the doorframe. He looked at an old clock on the wall. He wanted to go see Bear. He hoped that it would raise his spirits a little, but then when he thought about the totality of the situation, he sank deeper into his own sense of self-pity.
On the way to the hospital, Thomas tried to purge the morning’s events from his mind. When he arrived, the nurse at the front desk recognized him, and pointed to her watch to indicate that he only had a little bit of time before Bear was due for her daily examination.
When he entered the room, the sound from a nearby television set made a high pitched beeping noise, and for a second, Thomas thought he’d find Bear sitting up in her hospital bed playing video games.
He walked in and held her hand. “I wish I had good news, baby, but as usual, I don’t. When is all this bullshit going to end for us, anyway?” He turned to look out the window. The clouds were particularly billowy against the blue sky. Thomas raised his hand and closed one eye as if he were indexing the formations as targets.
“Not even you can make ammunition that’s powerful enough to hit one of them,” a voice from behind him said.
Slowly, he turned to see Bear smiling at him from her hospital bed.
“Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God!” Thomas shouted. “Nurse!”
The doctor showed up soon enough, and ushered Thomas outside while he conducted his examination. It was only for a short while, but it was the longest half-hour of his life.
“You can come in and see her now,” the doctor said, waving Thomas into the room.
A thousand words ran through his head as he stepped past the threshold. When he stood over Bear, all he could think of to say was, “So, are you still shooting for team Prepperland?”
Bear chuckled a little before shaking her head, “No.”
“That’s fine. We don’t have a team, anyway.” Thomas sat on the bed next to her. “I screwed up again, Bear. They are pissed at me for making promises that I might not be able to keep.”
“Why’d you do that?” Bear asked.
“I don’t know. It seemed like the thing to do at the time. Why does anybody lie? It starts off small, and you think that you can get out of it pretty easily, then it becomes more and more layered and complicated, until you’ve forgotten why you said what you said in the first place.” Bear placed her hand on his knee. “I meant to help them all out. I really did, but that damn Dale Stone.” Thomas grunted. “And now it looks like he’ll own Prepperland.” Thomas stood. “Maybe, we can just move away and leave all of this behind.”
Bear sat up in her bed. “You wouldn’t be able to do that. If there is one thing that I know will eat you up inside for the rest of your life, it is losing Prepperland. You just can’t do it. You were a good son, and I know that you never got the pat on the back you deserved from your father, but keeping the business alive, is, your acceptance. You are Prepperland, now. Not your father. Make it a home.”
“You always know what to say,” Thomas said. “I’ll pull this together somehow, even if I have to drag those knuckleheads out of bed the day of the competition.”
The nurse at the front desk entered the room. “It’s time to go Mr. Gunderson.”
Thomas leaned over and gave Bear a kiss on the forehead. “I love you,” he said.
“Of course,” Bear replied.
Thomas left the hospital. Where he was going and how he was going to convince the others to join him was anybody’s guess, but he had to try. Even if it meant that he’d have to eat a little crow.
The first door that Thomas knocked on was that of Kerena Faux. She lived the closest to Prepperland, so it seemed like it was a good place to start. He had addresses for Kerena and Sam, but he’d have to do some creative searching to find Titan; a problem he’d deal with later.
Thomas knocked on the door. The apartment complex was riddled with unique smells coming from the various meals that were being prepared within. Thomas could almost taste a certain flavor before it was replaced with more of a bitter concoction. The overall experience was quite unpleasant, and Thomas thought about just grabbing a simple burger and fries, later.
The door opened slightly, the sound of the security chain clanged against the doorframe as it stretched to its maximum length.
“Can I help you?” A gruff voice said from inside the apartment.
For a brief moment, Thomas thought he’d knocked on the wrong door.
“Yes, is this where Kerena lives? Kerena Faux?” Thomas asked. “If so, I just need to discuss something with her just for a moment.”
The man behind the door snickered. “Kerena, huh. Is that what she’s calling herself now?” He turned to yell into the apartment. “Sasha. Sasha Snodgrass. You have a visitor.”
When Kerena got to the door, the man opened it wide and pushed her as she went outside to talk to Thomas.
“Hey, man. Come on. What’s up with that?” Thomas said.
The Man rolled his eyes. Thomas heard the word asshole just before the door shut.
“What a sweetheart,” Thomas said. He noticed that Kerena was a lot quieter than usual. He also almost didn’t recognize her. No fake eyelashes, makeup or designer sweats. To him, she looked… normal.
“So who’s…,” Thomas pointed.
“Dad,” Kerena said before he could finish.
The look on her face was not only that of embarrassment, but also of disgust. She didn’t raise her head once to look at Thomas.
“Can I ask about the Kerena thing?” Thomas said.
Kerena shrugged her shoulders before answering. “If you were born Sasha Snodgrass, wouldn’t you change your name, too?”
Thomas held out his hand. “Ms. Snodgrass, I’m Richard. Richard Raper.”
Kerena laughed. “Dick Raper,” she said, covering her mouth. “Oh my God.”
“Yeah,” Thomas said. “Sometimes we need a clean break. And I’ve noticed that you don’t talk like you’re right out of a rap video anymore.”
Kerena shot him a look as though she was coy.
“Look, let me talk to you for a minute, we can go and grab some burgers or whatever. And it’s still Kerena and Thomas, right?”
“Right,” Kerena said.
Just then, the door behind Kerena flew open. “Mister, I don’t know who you are, but you’re not going anywhere with my little girl.”
“You know, when your daughter came to Prepperland to learn how to use a gun, I could sense that something was amiss. She was afraid of something or someone. Perhaps someone in her life that wasn’t so nice to her.”
“Fuck you!” The man shouted. He opened the door all the way and stretched his chest outward almost beyond what his dirty tank top would hold.
“Kerena, as your instructor, can you tell me which firearm would be best to use in a situation like this. As we’ve discussed in class, I have an ankle revolver, a Glock 19 in my waistband, and of course, my primary – a Glock 34, I might add – here on my hip. Thomas caressed the bulge that resided just under his hoodie.
“Well…,” Kerena started. “… The ankle revolver is too far to get to before my dad makes a move. The waistband compact Glock 19 should only be drawn if there is a primary malfunction, so I’d say you’re good to go with the 34. You can draw that thing in about 1 second, right?”
“That’s about right,” Thomas said. He rested his hand on the bulge.
The man in the doorway deflated. He backed into the apartment and slammed the door.
“Let’s go,” Thomas said. “I get the feeling that you’ll be staying with us for a while.” Kerena beamed. As they made their way to his car, Thomas lifted his hoodie to access the fanny pack he was wearing on his right side. He unzipped the pouch and pulled out a stick of gum.
“Wait a minute,” Kerena said. “Where’s your Glock 34?”
“Oh. That’s at home. So are the ankle revolver and Glock 19.”
Kerena got into the car. Thomas handed her a stick of gum. “You’re a slick one, Thomas Gunderson.”
“Keep that in mind when you hear what I have to say.”
“Where are we going?”
“We have got to find Sam and then Titan.”
Kerena looked down at the fanny pack. “Does Bear know you wear that?
Thomas smiled. “She thinks it’s dorky, but yeah.”
“I doubt that,” Kerena added. “Seems to me, she’d burn something like that on sight.”
“Let’s just keep it our little secret,” Thomas said, leaving the apartment complex.
While they drove through town, Thomas had Kerena look through a manila file folder containing each of the applications he had on file. She tried to find Sam’s address as Thomas bounced down the road, seemingly hitting every speed bump and pot hole at an unusually high rate of speed.
“Here it is,” Kerena said.
She started to type the address on her phone, when the vehicle screeched to a halt. Kerena almost bounced off the dashboard; the force throwing her phone onto the floorboard. She turned her head slowly toward Thomas, and he’d seen the look before. He was just about to get his ass ripped if he didn’t start to explain exactly why he’d stopped so fast.
“Is that Sam?” He said, pointing.
Karena shifted her focus. There was a line coming out of some kind of tech store, and it looked like Sam was standing there waiting for something.
“Let’s go,” Thomas said, parking the car.
Kerena picked up her phone and saw that the screen was cracked. Kill him later, she thought. Kill him later.
The two crossed the street, dodging a couple of slow moving cars as they passed. One of the vehicles honked its horn, which caught Sam’s attention.
“What are you guys doing here?” Sam asked.
“We were looking for you,” Thomas answered.
“I’m working right now.”
“Working?” Kerena asked.
“Yeah, I’m a professional spot saver.”
“A what?” Thomas said.
“I wait in line for products that haven’t been released yet, then when it’s time, I call the client, they take my place and go in and buy the latest phone, or tablet or whatever.”
“You wait in line for a living,” Thomas said, trying not to let his face reveal what he was really thinking.
“Yes,” Sam replied.
“Parents got to be proud.”
Kerena elbowed Thomas in the side.
“Sam, I’m sorry,” Thomas said. “I meant…”
“Don’t worry about it,” Sam assured him. “I already how my father feels about me. Do you know what it’s like to have a father who is a military hero, and you can’t even get into the armed services? It’s like I wasn’t even given a chance, so what I do now doesn’t really matter.”
Thomas felt his chest tighten. The feelings that Sam described still resonated with him about his own father. He knew exactly how the boy felt.
“Look, Sam… my father was in a Marine Reconnaissance unit during the Vietnam War. If you saw his DD-214, you’d see that it reads like a manual on how to kill people. I went to college, and we’d compete together in these shooting tournaments. I always felt like he wanted me to enlist, but he never said anything. What I came to learn later on, was that he was proud of me for just being who I was.” Thomas laughed. “And the fact that when we competed I’d kick the shit out of all the military guys.”
Sam seemed to understand.
“I’m trying to live up to his legacy by keeping Prepperland open just like you’re trying to prove to your father that you have value as well. And do you know how you could do that?”
Sam looked like he was going to say yes, but then shook his head from side to side.
“By burying Dale Stone and his Team 5 Response flunkies.”
Sam took his phone out of his pocket and dialed a number. “Yes, Mr. Vial, You need to come down here as soon as possible. I have an emergency that I have to attend to.”
There was a soft grumble that came out of the phone’s speaker before Sam hung up.
“He’ll be here in about ten minutes.”
Thomas pointed across the street. “We’ll have the car running.”
They didn’t wait for long. Sam’s employer showed up in no time, and the group headed back to Prepperland. There was a surprise waiting near the broken down sign when they returned.
“Is that Titan,” Sam said.
Thomas smiled. “Yes. Yes, it is. I can tell by his hat.” Titan was wearing his 25th infantry division cap.
They pulled up next to him and Thomas rolled down his window. Titan leaned in to address the group. “I’m sorry I bailed on you guys. I guess I just got a little hot headed, that’s all.”
“It’s pretty scary when a guy named Titan says that he got a little hot headed,” Kerena said.
Titan shrugged. “Just happens.”
“Let’s go over a few things about next week’s competition,” Thomas said. “We’re not practicing today, you’re not going to get significantly better by next week, but I do want to give you guys the layout of the stages and a few pointers. I got an email of the stage setup from Dale last night.”
“Right,” Kerena said. She winked at Titan and pushed Sam on his shoulder.
“Next Saturday is going to be a big day for all of us. Now, let’s go wrap our heads around what we’re going to have to do.”
The week went by faster than Thomas had expected. The night before the competition, he didn’t get much rest. Thomas took a couple of cat naps sometime after midnight, but didn’t feel as refreshed as he should have if he’d gotten a good night’s sleep. He was sure that the other members of the team didn’t either. He just hoped that they would all be frosty enough in the morning to do the job that needed to be done. He wished that Bear was lying next to him. He ran his hand across the empty space. The sheets were cold, and so it seemed was his resolve. If he lost tomorrow, Prepperland was gone, and with it, most of the life that he’d built, no matter how simple it may seem to the people looking inward. One way or another, Dale Stone would have to be bested, and Thomas was determined to be the one to facilitate the defeat.
The next day, both squads showed up on-time and ready to shoot. Dale’s team was running through each stage, pretending to draw their firearms and take a sight picture. Thomas circled up with his group. “See what they’re doing there? Get in line and practice running the stage the best way that suits you. Don’t worry how someone else is doing it, shape the challenge to your strengths. I’m going to go set up an area for you guys to reload your magazines and store your stuff.”
“Right boss,” Titan said.
“Kerena, did you load up your magazines, yet?” Thomas asked.
“No, I didn’t,” she said.
“Yeah, I didn’t see any in your pouches. Before you run through the stage, go load some magazines. That way when we’re ready to go, no one is waiting for you.”
“Okay,” Kerena said. She made her way over to a clearly marked reloading table and grabbed the ammo can marked Prepperland 9mm.
Dale looked over to see Kerena loading her magazines. He walked over as if he was going to make some polite conversation. “Ready for today?” He asked.
Kerena ignored him. Then, she looked up and smiled gingerly.
“I can help you with that,” Dale said. “A lady shouldn’t have to load her own magazines.” He leaned over and scooped a handful of cartridges out of the ammo can.
Kerena grabbed Dale by the wrist. “I got it,” she said. “But thanks.”
“Just trying to be sportsman like,” Dale said. He reached into his pocket when Kerena looked down and added a single cartridge to the mix in his hand.
“Here you go,” Dale said, dumping the bullets back into the can. “Sometimes daddy just can’t be nice to people,” he whispered loud enough for Kerena to hear before rejoining his team.
Kerena thought about her father. A sharp chill ran down her spine. The comment had shaken her enough that she tried to load a cartridge into the magazine that was facing the wrong way. “Fuckin’ butthole,” Kerena said under her breath. She shivered slightly and then returned to what she was doing. When she was finished, she joined the others in practice. Little did she know that she’d inadvertently loaded the cartridge that Dale had dumped in her ammo can into one of her magazines.
“Okay, let’s get to the safety briefing,” Dale said.
Both teams assembled. Dale went on about being safe during the competition, muzzle discipline, finger off the trigger and all that when a car pulled into the parking lot. Thomas noticed the vehicle out of the corner of his eye. The passenger side door opened, and a cane with a rubber stopper hit the ground first. Then, a pair of shoes, and Thomas knew who it was in an instant.
“Dale, I’ll be right back,” Thomas said.
“You’d better be ready to go right when I’m done,” Dale countered. “We’re not waiting for you.”
Thomas ran over to the car. Bear struggled a little, but was able to get her balance. Thomas threw his arms around her, but was careful not to squeeze her too tightly because of her injury.
“Why are you out of the hospital? Who is this with you?” Thomas asked, referring to the driver.
An elderly gentleman exited the vehicle. He was wearing a Marines soft top hat that read Marine Force Recon. The man stood tall and looked into the crowd to spot his son. Sam turned around. His father waved, and Sam was taken aback. He wasn’t sure what the feeling was that came racing up through him, but whatever it was, it was good.
“I arranged this along with Kerena from the hospital,” Bear said. “I thought Sam might need the support.”
Thomas peered at Kerena. She dipped her head to one side and grinned.
“Now, get out there and win,” Bear added just before the tournament started.
The match began right on time, and the competition was going well for the Prepperland shooters. The first four stages challenged each competitor, and because of the number of teams that entered the tournament, it took about four hours to get to the last stage. Thomas was as fast as ever, Kerena was being safe, Titan was racking up points like a shooting machine, and Sam was steady and consistent.
Thomas was proud of them, but knew that the real test of their skills was about to start. The last stage. It was the one that he and Dale had based their rather eccentric wager on, and if Thomas and his team fell apart now, Prepperland would be no more.
Thomas pursed his lips. He stood behind the group as they started to call the names of the competitors, and looked over the stage one last time. There were four official USPSA cardboard targets that were staggered at various distances. The object was to put at least two shots in the center of the target, or alpha zone, from each of the designated shooting areas. There were three blue boxes tethered to the ground by spikes. Each box was approximately six feet long by six feet wide. After engaging the cardboard targets, the shooter could move to another designated area and take aim at the first of six steel plates, placed horizontally across a metal frame. Once the steel was knocked down, another set of four cardboard targets punctuated the tail end of the stage. The design was a basic, but Thomas knew that his shooters needed to keep their fingers off the trigger when moving between shooting areas. It was an easy way to get disqualified, and even Thomas had made the mistake a few times throughout his shooting career.
“James. James Warren, you’re our first shooter,” Dale said, reading the name off the iPad. “Do you understand the course of fire?”He asked, raising the shot timer to Titan’s ear. Before the sound of the beep, Titan ran through his plan one more time. He knew exactly where he was going to do his magazine changes and what his shooting positions were going to be. The shot timer sounded. Titan took off running. He performed a quick double-tap placing two shots onto the first set of paper targets. He changed magazines, and knocked down a rack of six steel plates without missing.
“He’s doing it,” Thomas said, clenching his fists.
Titan ran to the last section of the stage and unloaded into the rest of the cardboard targets. Thomas could see the hits, or the lack thereof, on the last set of silhouettes.
“What the hell?” Thomas said. He pointed at the targets again with his index finger, trying to see if he had missed any hits. There was only one hit in the alpha zone. All three of the other shots missed the targets entirely.
Thomas looked over at Dale, who seemed a little too preoccupied to acknowledge Titan’s debacle.
The afternoon crept up on the competitors, and the sun was beating down something fierce. Dale went over to his range bag, grabbed a hat, and placed the cap over his sweat-soaked hair. When he turned, Thomas couldn’t help but notice the emblem stitched across the face of the headgear. It read 25th infantry division.
Thomas stood dumbfounded for a few moments. “He sandbagged the stage. Jesus Christ. He served with Dale,” Thomas realized.
“What?” Kerena added.
“He must have told Dale that I tried to get him to come to Prepperland while he was robbing the convenience store. I thought that Titan showing up just when we needed another shooter was a little too convenient, but I let the pressure of the situation get the best of me,” Thomas recounted.
Kerena didn’t know what to say. She just crossed her arms and watched the next competitor as he stepped into the shooting area.
Just then, Titan turned to Dale and signaled to his former commander with a slight nod of his head.
Thomas gathered his resolve. One problem at a time. One stage at a time, he thought. Focus on the rest of the match.
He turned to Kerena. “Let’s see how the Team 5 Response guy does when the pressure is on. I’ll bet he folds.”
The second competitor stepped into the shooting box. He loaded and made ready. When the shot timer went off, he flew through the course, hitting his targets with ease. When he got to the steel plates the clang rang out across the compound. The first three fell with hits that were just above the center of the plate. Thomas could see that the impact marks were getting higher and higher. By the time the competitor got to the fifth plate, the dirt above, and behind the target sputtered, indicating that the projectile had missed. The shooter went on to the sixth plate and knocked it down. Placing his front post back on the fifth target, the competitor squeezed the trigger. The dirt behind the target once again launched into the air.
“He’s going to panic,” Thomas said to Kerena.
The shooter pulled back on the trigger four more times, each hit landing just above or below the plate. Finally, the slide on his firearm locked back.
Thomas lowered his head, knowing full well that the shooter would have to take a penalty for the missed steel.
“That helped us,” Thomas said. “Way to get us back in the game.” He fist bumped the remaining members of his team.
Sam was up next in the order of shooters. He looked back at his father, who gave him a kind nod. Sam had only seen the gesture two other times in his life. When he graduated from high school, and when he told his father that he’d decided to join the military. Unfortunately for Sam, the second time he’d received his father’s approval was punctuated by the discovery that he was ineligible to serve for medical reasons. They never discussed the details of the situation, but Sam knew how his father felt. But then, Prepperland came along. Thomas and Bear had trained him well, and he was ready to show his father what he was made of. This time was different. This time, Sam was going to fight.
The timer sounded. Sam took off, hitting the alpha zone on most of his cardboard targets, and then knocking down all six of the steel plates.
“Yes, that’s what we needed,” Thomas said. He glanced over at Dale. The big man looked nervous, but Thomas knew that his team was far from out of the game.
The next Team 5 Response shooter stepped up to the line and made ready. Except for a couple of fumbles while changing magazines, the time it took him to get through the course was amazing. When the shot timer stopped, he had bested Sam’s time by two seconds.
Thomas quickly did the math in his head. “We’re still okay,” he said to his team. It’s going to come down to me and Kerena.”
Kerena stepped back slightly and placed the palm of her right hand on her chest.
“Calm down, sweetie,” Thomas assured her. “Just stick to what you know. Don’t push your shots. Take aim and move smoothly through the stage.”
Kerena took a deep breath. Bear took notice of the interaction from afar. She was never more proud of Thomas. He’d taken what was essentially a motley group of misfits and turned them into real shooters. She knew that he would get his footing sooner or later, and whether or not the day’s events went in their favor, Prepperland would always be saved in their hearts.
Since Kerena was the next to shoot, Thomas made sure that she had loaded all of her magazines and was ready to go. She stepped into the shooting area. Dale looked over at one of his teammates, winked and then elbowed the man on his shoulder. Thomas saw the exchange, but paid little attention to the action. He needed to focus on Kerena.
“Shooter ready?” The range officer said.
Kerena nodded. The shot timer went off.
She engaged the first set of targets. Kerena moved to her next shooting position and changed magazines with ease. Thomas threw his hands in the air. “Unbelievable,” he said. “She’s doing great.”
The steel plates and the remainder of the cardboard targets stood between Kerena and the completion of the stage. She took aim and squeezed the trigger. The firing pin made contact with the primer, but the projectile didn’t discharge.
Dale grabbed the shoulder of the man next to him in anticipation that Kerena would panic and fail to knock down the steel.
“Tap and rack,” Thomas whispered.
Kerena immediately struck the bottom of the magazine and racked the slide of the gun to the rear. The bad round ejected, and Kerena placed the front post back in the center of the first steel plate. Her gun fired when she pulled the trigger to the rear, and one by one the targets fell as she engaged them.
Kerena turned to face Thomas but was careful not to let the muzzle of the pistol turn away from a safe firing position. She waved excitedly.
Thomas clasped his hands together and bowed his head.
“If you’re finished, show clear and then hammer down,” the range officer said.
Kerena completed the safety procedures before holstering her pistol. She ran from the shooting box to hug Thomas.
“Great job, sweetie. Couldn’t have done better myself,” Thomas said. He noticed that she was crying. He hugged her a little tighter to show that he understood and that he was very proud of her.
“Dale Stone. You’re up,” the range officer announced. “Thomas Gunderson, you’re on deck.”
Before letting go of Kerena, Thomas stared into the dirt where the round that she had ejected would have fallen. Since the other competitors were busy taping up the holes in the targets, Thomas went over to see if he could find the loose bullet. He searched around the dirt until he found what he was looking for. When he inspected the round, he noticed that the name of the company etched into the rim of the brass casing was Blazer. “Funny,” he said. “I don’t reload with Blazer brass.” He shook the cartridge and looked in Dale’s direction. The big man was getting ready to shoot.
Thomas went to his range bag. He retrieved a kinetic bullet puller and loaded the round into the hammer-like tool. He pounded the face of the apparatus against the hard concrete and extracted the projectile from its seating. There was no powder in the brass.
“Son of a bitch,” Thomas said. “He fucking tried to jam her pistol.”
Thomas had been heated before, but even Bear noticed that something was different.
“Something’s wrong,” Bear said to Sam’s dad.
“What do you think is going on?”
“I don’t know, but he’s pissed.”
Thomas placed the components in the front pocket of his tactical pants. He thought about telling the range officer about Dale’s indiscretion, and even his recruitment of Titan for that matter, but then thought better of the idea because of what was at stake. To the other teams competing, this was just the Freeman Tournament. Their livelihoods weren’t in jeopardy. Not to mention the fact that a side bet like the one he had with Dale would be considered unsportsmanlike conduct, and they could both be barred from competition shooting. Thomas would just have to deal with Dale himself. He pushed his way back through the crowd of shooters and prepared to watch Dale’s run.
“Let’s go Stone,” one of Dale’s teammates yelled. The big man turned and grinned.
Thomas was to the point of wanting to punch Dale out after his run, but knew that he had to keep his composure even in the face of Dale’s attempt to rig the event.
Dale readied himself.
“Shooter ready,” the range officer said.
Dale didn’t move. The shot timer went off, and he drew his pistol in under a second. His shots were on target, and his transitions smooth.
Thomas was waiting for his gun to jam, or for him to forget to shoot one of the targets. A procedural penalty would also help out team Prepperland, but it was not likely that Dale would make such an error.
Dale’s run went off with excellent poise and skill.
Kerena walked up to Thomas. “What do you think?”
“I think that it’s going to come down to a second or two. I’ll just have to do the best that I can.”
“Do you think you can make up for the time?”
“I’ll have to go faster or get better hits,” Thomas added. “I think the best option would be to cut down on my travel time. That means that I can’t run to each shooting position. I’ll have to take out some of the targets from a place that’s farther out. My shots are going to have to be right on the money.”
Kerena walked back and forth, looking for an alternate way in which to complete the stage. She couldn’t find a solution, but knew that Thomas was good at the game. He had to have something in mind.
After the targets had been taped up and the stage was clear, the range officer was ready to get Thomas shooting. “Gunderson, you’re up,” he said.
Thomas stepped into the firing box.
The range officer held the shot timer up to Thomas’s ear. “Load and make ready.”
Thomas loaded a magazine and racked a cartridge into the action.
The shot timer sounded like it went off in slow motion. Thomas drew his pistol and then squeezed the trigger, hitting his first set of targets. All of his hits were in the alpha zone.
“He’s doing it,” Bear cheered.
Thomas looked over at the second shooting box. He made sure that his finger wasn’t on the trigger before making his move. As he exited the first shooting area, his knee gave out and the front of his shoe caught the outside of the second wooden frame. Thomas felt himself lurching forward. He ducked his head and went into a full roll; the movement ended in him lying prone in the next shooting area.
“What the hell is he doing?” Dale said.
Bear’s eyes widened. “No way. That Mel Gibson son of a bitch.”
Thomas took aim at the six steel plates. He rolled to his right, spinning on the ground and firing his pistol at the same time. The steel targets fell one at a time with the rhythm of dominos toppling across a flat table. Standing, Thomas engaged the last four targets by moving to one other shooting area. The shot timer recorded his last shot.
“7.49,” the range officer called out.
“That’s two seconds better than Dale’s time,” Bear said. She leaned over and hugged Sam’s dad who was not expecting the embrace, but gladly accepted the attention from such a lovely young lady.
When the officials checked the targets, Thomas had fourteen hits in the A zones and two in the C.
Dale almost jumped out of his skin. He couldn’t believe what had just happened.
“Wait a minute,” Dale said to the range officer. “He has to engage the third set of targets from the last shooting position. That’s a procedural.”
The range officer made his way over to the stage directions that were taped to a small table for the competitors to view. He examined the document. “There isn’t anything that says where a shooter can engage the targets from. If he wants to shoot from one area, then he can. It’s perfectly within the rules of the stage.”
Dale tightened his jaw. He waited with his team, while the range officer looked over the final scores.
Omitting the points from the other teams, the range officer focused on Team 5 Response and Prepperland. He’d been informed of what was going on between the two teams and used extreme prudence while making his announcements.
Thomas dusted off his tactical pants, and then looked over at Bear. He’d done the best that he could, and hoped that if there was a heaven, that his father was looking down at him while whispering - That’s my boy.
The range officer went over the numbers several times before declaring a winner.
“So…, taking into account the point deductions from penalties and procedurals,” the range officer paused. “The winner is…,” he turned the iPad around.
Kerena reached over and grabbed Thomas by the hand.
“Prepperland,” the range officer declared.
Thomas couldn’t believe what he’d heard. He looked at his team members for some kind of validation that he wasn’t wrong in what he was thinking.
“We won!” Kerena shouted.
Sam hugged her tight. They all turned and patted Thomas on the back. Bear clasped her hands together and felt her eyes well up with tears. They’d done it. Prepperland had beaten Team 5 Response.
Thomas looked over at Dale, who in perfect character kept a face devoid of emotion. He reached into his pocket and retrieved the components of the bullet that he’d pulled apart earlier. Dale walked away from the course, grabbed his range bag and went over to the safe table to case his pistol. Titan joined him, and Thomas followed. Dale was putting a trigger lock on his gun when Thomas threw the pieces of the bullet onto the table in front of him.
“Looks like you’ll need a new place for your parking lot,” Thomas said. “I’ll send you a list of classes and dates when we’ll be using the range. If you need any time for your own outfit, just let me know and I’ll squeeze you in somewhere.”
Titan couldn’t help but be impressed. “Looks like you came through, boss.”
“Could have been a part of the winning team,” Thomas said.
Titan shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah. Missed out on that one. Loyalty is a bitch, huh?”
Dale didn’t respond. He loaded up his gear and went to his car. Thomas didn’t care that they hadn’t exchanged comments. He’d never liked what Dale had to say anyway. The big man knew that he’d been bested and that’s all that Thomas cared about.
“Looks like we’ll get to do some more shooting,” Kerena said.
“That we will,” Thomas said, looking over his shoulder at Bear. “That we will.”
It wasn’t long before Thomas had come up with a set of courses that he could run at the range. It had only been a couple of weeks since they’d won the Freeman Competition, but Thomas stayed hard at work. He’d included everything from beginning pistol to advanced carbine. The applications came flooding in to take courses at Prepperland, and Thomas took full advantage of the extra income. He entered the church where he and Bear lived. There was a new carpet smell that he reveled in every time he opened the front door. It was a silly little thing, but Thomas had learned not to take the small things for granted. He went into the bedroom where Bear was playing video games on her phone.
“Hey you,” he said. “Come here. I need to show you something.”
“What is it?” Bear asked. Her head was swaying from side to side; her pigtails slapping her in the face.
“Just come here,” Thomas said. He took her by the hand and led her outside. As they approached the Prepperland sign from behind, Bear could tell that there was a little more illumination coming from the face of the iconic marker. They moved around the structure, and there to behold was a completely renovated Prepperland sign. No burnt out lights or missing letters.
“Pretty as a Christmas tree,” Bear said.
“So are you,” Thomas replied. He reached into his pocket, got down on one knee and held out a one carat diamond ring.
“Will you marry me, Bear?”
Five minutes ago, Bear was mostly concerned with beating her high score on the driving game she was playing. Now, she was being proposed to in front of the Prepperland sign. She couldn’t think of a better time or place.
“Of course,” she answered.
Thomas slipped the ring on her finger, stood and embraced her tightly.
“Just so you know, your grandmother’s ring is back in your jewelry box. I got it back before I purchased this little gem here,” Thomas said.
“Never a dull day with you,” Bear reminisced.
Just then, a group of cyclists sped down the road in front of Prepperland. They were about twenty guys strong. Thomas felt the hair on the back of his neck stand tall. One of the men entered the compound and stopped next to the sign.
“Hey, can I ask what this is all about? I mean, what do you do here?”
Bear prepared herself for the backlash of comments that Thomas was going to throw out at the guy. Instead - very calmly - Thomas reached into his fanny pack and retrieved a business card. He handed it to the cyclist.
Bear shook her head, giving Thomas the - All right; you can wear the fanny pack and Scooby-Doo hat - look.
Thomas reached under his sweatshirt to retrieve his cap. He ran his fingers through his hair before securing the coveted headgear.
“We mostly do firearms safety and advanced sport shooting scenarios,” Thomas said.
“Cool,” the cyclist added. “I’ll be in contact.” He placed the Prepperland card in a pouch under his seat, waved goodbye, and rode off.
“Was that that hard?” Bear asked.
“Almost killed me,” Thomas answered.
That night, Thomas had the nightmare again. He was being chased by some unknown assailant, but this time, he was able to draw his pistol and fire. The projectile launched into the darkness never landing on target. Thomas knew then that the dream was never about what he was shooting at, it was just the fact that he’d had the courage to take the shot. The projectile was leading him into an unknown future for which he was now, ostensibly prepared.
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