Today we feature the first of two top finalists in our 2021 Flash Fiction contest.
by Kevin Sandefur
There’s a man with a gun in the park. Jani spots him as soon as he comes through the columns at the entrance. He’s hard to miss, wearing a black ammo vest over camo fatigues without any insignia, and carrying an AR-15.
The weapon startles Jani, and she can’t take her eyes off the man as he crosses purposefully to the park’s central plaza. Once there, he stands with his back to the fountain, the rifle slung casually through his crossed forearms. Jani is a little surprised that no one else in the park appears to have taken notice, or even looked up from their phones.
As a child, Jani encountered men with guns all the time in the old country — warlords and gangsters, bodyguards and militia. Their images well up in quick succession, depersonalized behind body armor and face shields, but mostly she remembers the smells. Acrid smoke from the gunfire. Her friends’ blood, so thick and bitter in the air that she can still taste it. The scent of her little brother’s urine mixed with her own fear as they cowered together in the alleys, hiding until the men with the guns had passed. Armed men owned the streets there, but here? In America?
The lunch wrap she’d brought from home is suddenly weightless in her hands as her fingers forget what they were doing. Her appetite lost, she sets the wrap down, but there’s still a bite of it in her mouth. Once she’d seen the gun, she’d stopped chewing.
Jani swallows the bite and studies the man. Feet spread at parade rest, he seems to be guarding the fountain, but from what? Maybe he’s waiting for something, a public event, or one of the many protests she’s watched from the safety of her office building overlooking the park. The man’s eyes are hidden behind mirrored sunglasses; his mouth a thin, flat line, betraying nothing that would answer her questions.
Beyond the fountain, there are children in the park’s playground, carefully watched by their parents from surrounding benches. They remind Jani once again of the sacrifices her own parents made, to send her and her brother unaccompanied to the relative safety of the United States. In the rest of the park, couples are walking arm in arm, lost in each other’s orbits, their leisurely pace forcing the occasional joggers to swing wide to pass around them. A few of the parkgoers are people Jani knows, friends and coworkers, the interns and fellow assistants from her office. None of them seem outwardly concerned by the man’s presence, but she pulls her phone out anyway, just in case she needs to call for help or record his actions.
He turns his head towards her, and Jani freezes. Now that he’s facing her directly, the skin on her forearm puckers. With deliberate slowness, she taps the camera app on her phone and points it at the man. She holds her breath to steady her hands and takes a single photograph of him, trapped in the moment, a sentinel of unknown purpose.
Neither of them moves. Jani no longer hears anything else in the park, not the laughter of the children or the bubbling of the fountain, only the low, heavy beating of her heart, thumping faster and faster as old fears return and her blood pressure rises and the darkness creeps in around the edges of her vision, a closing iris with the sentinel at its center, his face drifting closer and closer to block out everything else until the shadow of something — a bird or a cloud or a ghost — flickers across his features as he turns away, and Jani remembers to exhale.
She puts away her phone and concentrates on her breathing while she calms down and gathers her thoughts. “Not here,” she whispers, to reassure herself by hearing it out loud. “Not in the land of the free. This is my home now, and I am the brave.”
Leaving her lunch forgotten on the bench, Jani walks directly toward him. “I am the brave,” she says again softly, and she keeps repeating her mantra as his gaze returns to her on her approach. “I am the brave.”
She stops within arm’s reach of him. He’s much larger up close. The top of her head barely clears his sternum. Her nose is level with his rifle barrel, and the smell of the gun oil fills her sinuses. She leans forward to take a full whiff, to remember the scent of the weapon.
Still leaning in, she rises up on her toes, tilting her face upward and to one side as though they are lovers about to kiss, but instead she sniffs at his vest and shirt like a cat trying to decide if he is edible. He still doesn’t move, but the set of his jaw assures Jani that he knows she’s no longer a frightened child, or at least no longer afraid of him.
The corner of a thin stack of photocopied flyers sticks out of his upper vest pocket, their edges rough cut as though by hand. Most of their text is hidden in the pocket, but Jani makes out the name of the park and today’s date at the top. He slowly pulls one of the handbills out and holds it up. “Take one,” he offers, but Jani stares at the paper without accepting it. “It’s free,” he says. “Like this country.”
“Like this country,” Jani agrees. She sniffs the air around him one last time, then grins at her twin reflections in his sunglasses, before she turns and leaves him behind.