Gun Land

White and Red Balloons

This story was previously published in issue 3 of Medium Chill. Buy it here.

John wakes up in the morning in his two-bedroom flat in Beijing and sits down at the kitchen table sipping his first coffee before work while scrolling through social media updates on his phone. He expects the routine highlights: Aaron ran eight miles today in preparation for that marathon in Orlando next week, Jeff wishes to remind us via a re- shared comic that he is vegan and thus morally superior to the rest of us, Michelle’s two-year-old son achieved another milestone today of dubious merit, and Beth just can’t even, alright; she’s over it. John’s sure his own posts are equally banal, and that’s just fine. This is his lifeline to the States and to most of the people he cares about, and such triviality is endearing. Continuing to browse, he laughs to himself at how living halfway across the world can make even superficial posturing feel comfortable, like home.

Today, however, is clearly that other kind of familiar. There’s been a mass shooting somewhere in the US, and his network feed is chock-full of the histrionics associated with the now-too-frequent aftermath of an American tragedy. Scott is calling for increased mental health screening because gun control is a stupid, liberal fantasy. Jeremy feels obligated to remind us that we wouldn’t be facing any of this if we hadn’t taken God out of our schools at some undefined moment in the past. Angela shares a list of how much money each member of Congress receives in donations from the National Rifle Association. Sarah wants us to shove our thoughts and prayers up our respective asses.


John’s boyfriend Ning joins him at the table with a mug of coffee and an everything-bagel with cream cheese on a small ceramic plate. “Did you hear?”

“Yes. I’m reading about it now.”
“Your country is crazy. I really don’t understand it.” “What’s to understand? People get killed everywhere.

Some crazy guy stabbed a woman to death with a samurai sword, right outside the Uniqlo just down the street.”

“Yes, that’s true. A person murdered another person two and a half years ago, and you’re still talking about it today.”

The details of today’s shooting are unspectacular. The man, a loner about whom details are still emerging, accomplished neither a new body count record nor distinguished himself in any notable way as a multiple killer of humans. He used a semi-automatic rifle with a high- capacity magazine and spoke little during the attack. There was a restraining order on record against him from an ex- girlfriend, who was not listed among the dead. Acquaintances always found him a little unsettling but couldn’t imagine that he would do something like this. He was white, male and in his early twenties. Same old shit.

John arrives at work about an hour later, dreading the morning office banter, in which he, the only American in the high school English department, will be appointed de facto spokesperson for all 320 million of his countrymen. Sometimes, he has no trouble characterizing or at least contextualizing the beliefs and viewpoints of people back home, even when he doesn’t necessarily share them. He can explain the sharing of federal and state powers and the innovation that regularly emerges from the free-market private sector. On some level, he can even illuminate the prevailing if misdirected anger that lead to Hulk Hogan or whoever-the-hell being the current US president. When it comes to guns, however, he feels just as lost as the assorted Brits and Aussies and Canadians he works with.

“You do realize you’re basically the only country on Earth that deals with this. That every other country has figured out a way of addressing this issue.”

“I’m aware.”
“Well, shouldn’t that tell you something.”
“It should, yes.”
“Then why are your leaders so obstinate?” “Because…freedom?”
“In Australia, voting is compulsory, which prevents

demagogues with only fringe minority support from being elected.”

“Yes, I’ve heard that before.”

“You had 90 million registered voters who stayed home binge-watching Netflix instead of doing their civic duty.”

“It’s a problem.”

“In the Canadian parliamentary system, the majority party needs to cooperate or at least create a coalition with other parties to even form a government. They can’t just come in and start immediately dismantling what’s come before them.”


On this day, he’s just glad he teaches the first block and won’t have to spend as much time in the office. The students are less smug and accusatory when they ask questions about what’s happening in the world. They’re genuinely curious but a lot more tolerant because they’ve been taught to be through a diverse and cosmopolitan high school curriculum.

A particularly precocious boy named Feng stays behind today after 10th grade English.

“Mr. McDonald? Did you know anyone involved in this shooting?”

“No, this one was in a different part of the country. Thank you for asking that, though. That’s very thoughtful.”

“Oh, OK. So, are white Americans so obsessed with guns because they’re afraid of black people rising up against them?”

“Uhh…yeah. I think that’s a pretty big part of it actually.” “Really?”
“Oh, I don’t know. They’d tell you it’s for personal security

and as a safeguard against an out-of-control government becoming too powerful. That it goes back to the American Revolution and that resisting tyranny is a national tradition. I can’t pretend to know what they’re actually so afraid of. Probably black people.”

“Did you grow up playing with guns?”

“No…uhh…I’ve never even held a gun. My dad supposedly had a handgun somewhere, but I have no idea where his hiding places were. We certainly didn’t have weapons lying around the house out in the open.”

“Do my questions offend you?”

“What? No, definitely not. I get that you’re curious, and I understand why. I’m sure the whole idea of gun culture seems very foreign to you.”

“Are you afraid when you go home to the US in the summers?”

“No, not really. The odds of getting shot are still pretty low, especially where my family lives. I do think I’d be afraid to be a teacher there, but that probably has just as much to do with combative parents as it does with school shooters.”

When he gets home from work, John lounges on his sofa while sipping a bourbon highball and browses his network feed again. As is expected, people have hunkered down into their ideological trenches and continue volleying shots over no man’s land. Or whatever the online equivalent of that is. His old university professor shares a meme about how armed toddlers kill more Americans every year than Islamic jihadists do. A high school friend who’s been in and out of jail most of his adult life offers that we’re not spanking our kids enough or raising them right anymore, not like when he was young. A Dutch former coworker points out that this is karma for the damage the US’s military presence around the world has inflicted on innocent people for decades. Multiple people speculate about the most recent shooter’s political party affiliations as though they all expect him to have been fundraising and hanging candidate placards in his spare time while descending into homicidal madness and as though this revelation will provide the ultimate decisive victory in these drawn-out culture wars.


Ning’s key turns audibly in the front door. He works at a bank down the street and typically gets home an hour or two after John, which gives John some time to unwind from the day before having to freshen up to join him out for dinner.

“Has it been a whiskey-drinking kind of day?” “Why-Not Wednesday, I’m calling it.”
“So, it’s like Might-as-Well Monday?”
“Yeah, you’ve got the idea.”

The next morning, John sits nursing a catastrophic hangover. In theory, he should be able to stay out half the night drinking and dancing at his age and be perfectly fine in the morning. In practice, only Ning is able to do this while escaping the brutality of a next-day workplace hangover.

In John’s hazy memory of the previous night, he and Ning went from dinner first to a trendy cocktail bar on Bar Street, a place where the staff shushes you for getting drunk too loudly on their overpriced copper-cup concoctions, then to a tiny hole-in-the-wall Latin salsa club, where they worked up a sweat gyrating with a few straight female friends, and finally to a quiet hole-in-the-wall Hutong pub, where a young, blonde woman, maybe American, strummed a guitar and sang earnestly in a breathy alto that gave the sense that each of her vowels was being slightly misrepresented.

He remembers having had one of a few recurring dreams he’s had since childhood. In this one, he is maybe eight years old and playing in the basement of his childhood home with his little brother Billy. Their sister Janet is probably asleep in her crib upstairs. John is painting his black skateboard red using paint from cans he’s found hidden under the basement steps, but he’s accidentally making a mess all over the cement floor. When he looks at Billy, he sees that the poor kid is covered in red and worries that their parents are going to be furious about finding paint everywhere. Then, Billy takes off running upstairs. John puts down the skateboard and goes after him, trying to stop him from tracking paint and making everything worse, but he can’t find his brother. He just sees red footprints all through the kitchen and living room, and then he wakes up.

And later at work, he pays the price all day long for the previous night’s misadventures. At lunch, he stops by a table where students, including Feng, are selling pastries to raise money for the funerals of yesterday’s shooting victims and buys a croissant to settle his stomach. He’s touched that they’re being so empathetic and globally minded even if that money could be better used to help orphans or migrant workers here in Beijing. Baketivism. He resists the cynical urge to dismiss all their good intentions.

On Saturday, John wakes up around 10:30 a discombobulated horror-film zombie and stumbles out to the living room sofa. He’s hung over again after an eventful Friday night. Far more disciplined, Ning has gotten up early and gone to the gym already for an hour or two of cardio and weights. Again, John reaches for his phone to see what’s been happening in the world since he last checked, and, again, he regrets it.

The news today hits closer to home. At the middle school he once attended where Janet’s son, John’s nephew, is now enrolled, a 12-year-old brought a rifle to school in his backpack, assembled and loaded it in the first-floor boys’ restroom and then shot himself. At this point, no one knows whether this was an accidental self-injury and part of a foiled rampage killing or a public suicide attempt. There are rumors of explosives in the kid’s backpack, but these are still unsubstantiated. Some people are claiming he just had bottle rockets and other fireworks. The shooter’s prognosis remains unclear, but no one else has been injured. Later, it will be more or less accepted that the boy, who died of the self- inflicted wound, had had Columbine-style objectives of mayhem and mass murder in mind.

As John scrolls, he sees that the school was on lockdown for a few hours and that the kids of some people he knows were affected. One friend wrote, “It’s hard to explain what it’s like to get a phone call at 8:00 AM from your daughter’s school telling you there’s been a shooting involving a kid in your daughter’s grade and the school’s on lockdown.”

Another wrote, “My elementary school kids were just dropped off at home. The high school and middle school are on lockdown. This is my worst nightmare.”

He checks to see if Janet has posted anything. At 3:15 she wrote, “Thank you for all the messages and prayers today. Will is safe and at home. He’s asking a lot of tough questions tonight. Going back to school on Monday is going to be tough.”

Generally reticent to engage on social media beyond airport check-ins and Thailand beach vacation photos, John now joins the fray. He shares a satirical news article about how the United States can think of no solution to gun violence despite being the only country routinely dealing with it. Next, he posts an infographic about the gun murder rate in the US vs. other developed Western countries.

Then, he writes, “Today’s school shooting happened in my hometown at the school I once attended. If my life had taken a different turn, I might be working there now. And looking over my shoulder. Have I mentioned lately how glad I am to be living and working as a teacher in places where this isn’t a concern?

“Yesterday, my hometown newspaper posted an opinion poll asking how people feel about armed guards and metal detectors in local schools. People were strongly in favor. I read it and thought, ‘Who’s paying for that? School levies? Your property taxes? You assholes won’t even pay for an updated science wing.’

“Fix your shit, America. It’s getting harder and harder to explain you as I travel the world interacting with people from places where the idea of regular mass shootings is as inconceivable as alien invasions. You’re embarrassing yourself.”

He stays online for about an hour as 30-or-so friends like his post and a few comment “Well said” or “Amen”. “What has happened to our town?” one asks. “I tell my son to ‘be safe’ now before he gets on the school bus in the morning. I shouldn’t have to say that. I should say ‘have fun’ or ‘make some new friends’ when he leaves for school,” another says.

The feedback isn’t all positive, of course. Some friends debate the finer points of bump stocks and gun safes with him. Others muddy the waters with tangents about regulations on automobiles and pharmaceuticals. Other people join in to argue with those people. Some people are just obstinate dickheads and engage in proxy battles about abortion or the president. There’s a lot of back and forth about whether gun control is a solution or a band aid or, conversely, whether arming teachers is a solution or a band aid or just complete nonsense.

He puts his phone away and ventures into the kitchen to forage for anything edible for breakfast. He remembers having had another of his recurring dreams last night. In this one, John’s a kid again and is exploring the miles of woods behind his parents’ house. He’s looking for Billy, who has wandered off, as usual, and calling his younger brother’s name. John carries a black plastic bucket with a black handle, and, as he walks, he continues to find red Lego bricks on the ground and put them into his bucket. By the time he emerges from the woods into his parents’ backyard, the bucket is full of red Legos. He dumps it on the lawn and crouches down over the pile and then begins to assemble a human figure from the bricks while continuing to call for his brother. He awakens just as he is affixing the legs to the torso.

Later in the afternoon, after he has showered and reanimated, he picks up his phone again and sees a private message from Janet. She writes, “Hey. I didn’t want to post this publicly, but I thought you should know that Will was in the bathroom this morning with the kid who shot himself. I haven’t told Mom yet, for obvious reasons. Will walked in just as the kid was pulling the gun out of his bag. He even said, ‘what are you going to do’ or something like that, but the kid just walked past him like he didn’t hear him. When Will left to go find a teacher, he heard the gunshot. It’s just so terrible. All I can think about is us when we were kids, about you and Billy, and I can’t stop crying. I’m sorry. I love you.”

That night, he and Ning stay in, and John passes out drunk on the sofa around 11:00 as Ning streams a full season of some TV series about stone-faced fashion models in Singapore. Ning knows about John’s nephew’s connection to the shooting but not the full extent of what’s bothering John. As John snores with his face pressed against the sofa arm, Ning turns up the volume on the TV to drown him out.

That night, John dreams he’s at a massive outdoor carnival with his whole family. It’s another common one from his nocturnal repertoire. His mom and dad walk ahead pushing Janet in her stroller. He and Billy have stopped to play a game in which you shoot bottles with a rifle to win stuffed animals and are now running to catch up with their parents. John looks down and notices he’s still carrying the black rifle, which he must have inadvertently taken with him. He then notices that Billy is no longer running beside him. He stops and looks around, calling Billy’s name. His parents are now so far ahead that they’re out of sight, and he knows he’ll be in trouble if they discover he’s lost his little brother. He stops and scans the vicinity for any sight of Billy. Then John spots Billy off in the distance smiling and waving while holding a string tied to at least thirty red helium balloons. John laughs and runs towards his brother, still clutching the rifle. Suddenly, Billy lifts off the ground from the upward pull of so many balloons and begins to rise toward the sky. John reaches to grab Billy’s feet but narrowly misses them as Billy floats higher and higher. John then lifts the rifle and aims at the balloons to shoot and pop them, but by the time he has adopted a proper stance and taken aim, Billy has drifted too far aloft. Before John wakes, he sees the receding image of red balloons in the sky shepherding his doomed brother somewhere far away.

On Sunday morning, John reenlists in the ongoing online skirmish over guns and gets into a few heated discussions with friends and acquaintances. Ning has gone with friends to a free-flow champagne hotel brunch, but John begged out, claiming he was going to chat with his sister or maybe call his parents.

To one friend, John writes, “I know there are many rational gun owners, and I’m sure you’re one of them. Many of my friends and family members are. You’re not out there yee-hawing and firing your stupid shoot-em-up toys all over social media, and, more important, you’re not leaving dangerous weapons lying around everywhere for some moody, fucked-up little nobody kid to take to school and punish the world for failing to acknowledge that he’s as exceptional as he’s always believed he is.”

To another he responds, “The status quo isn’t working. It’s time to try things, and if those things are new gun laws or metal detectors or goddamned Robocops stalking the school hallways, let’s just stop talking in circles and do something already.”

When someone suggests arming teachers to prevent future shootings, he offers, “Why stop there? I say you arm the TAs to get the drop on the teachers in case something goes wrong. Then, you covertly arm one or two of the kids as a last-ditch fail-safe. Not all of them, mind you; just a few, maybe from the gifted and talented register or any who seem unusually precocious.”

He calls home that evening, which he can no longer avoid, and it’s every bit as uncomfortable as he has expected it to be. It’s mid-morning for his parents, and their A.M. concerns lie squarely with their traumatized grandson. So, they talk about Will and how he’s holding up, and they’re able to avoid the whole historical family subtext no one wants to draw attention to.

That night, John stays mostly sober and, mercifully, is able to sleep without dreaming.

At work the next day, things are beginning to feel more normal for John. His colleagues seem more sympathetic than sanctimonious this week, and his first lesson goes really well. Ning sends him a few funny messages about bank gossip, and he uses his free block for lesson planning instead of social media polemics. He’s become inured in these decades of dead kid ubiquity and better at not seeing himself as a victim. Or as a shooter.

At lunch, he decides to leave campus and walk up the street alone to a noodle shop. It’s been a long winter, and it feels right to enjoy the warming weather on such a mild early-spring day. Outside, he sees the students sitting at picnic tables and enjoying being outdoors. It’s nice to catch young people acting so free and energetic. He’s happy that violence is an abstraction for most of them, something only experienced in movies and TV shows as puerile entertainment. He knows there’s virtually no chance of one of them suddenly pulling out a gun and slaughtering the others. No chance they’ll have to hide terrified in a quiet, dark place to wait out the onslaught or have to call home and say a tearful maybe- goodbye to their panic-stricken parents. Or survive to become a tragic walking cause célèbre. He wonders if they realize how fortunate they are to grow up without this realm of possibility.

Feng wanders into his path and waves enthusiastically.

“Have a good lunch, Feng. Enjoy this weather and fresh air while you can. I think the AQI is going to climb tonight.”

“Thanks. You too, Mr. McDonald.”

As he walks away, John thinks back to his conversation with Feng the previous week. He feels confident he expressed the appropriate sentiments as a teacher to the kid about guns and American gun culture, but he wonders if he should have been more honest about his own personal experiences. About his childhood. His father’s hiding places. About guns. And, of course, about Billy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s