“The Dead Gunslingers” is the fourth-place winning story in SNHU’s 2017 Fall Fiction Competition.

by Alexander Olson

Seeing someone from high school felt like a crude shock, like getting zapped by a low-power motor. It was sudden, immediate; recognition software fired in Amsel’s brain, images and memories rotated, piecing together events and life moments that described the man he’d glimpsed in the Bread, Coffee, and Crackers aisle of Wal-mart.

“Isn’t that your friend…?” Polly said, trailing off, her own recognition software not quite registering who it was.

“Oh, Blake? Yeah, I think so,” Amsel replied. He couldn’t decide one way or another if he should go over and talk to him. It’d only been 3 years, but they weren’t teenagers any more. They were entrenched in their early twenties, like the blackheads that were entrenched on Amsel’s nose. The shock of seeing someone from your younger days was unpleasant; did he want to put that shock onto Blake, too?

If it happened, it happened. So Amsel didn’t stop Polly from angling the cart down the coffee aisle, their son Luke bouncing in the seat, gurgling and babbling elaborate baby talk.

They passed Blake, a tall, gangly, bearded man wearing a checkered red beanie. Blake was standing next to a blonde woman who was holding a little girl’s hand. The girl’s brother darted around them, chattering about nothing, plucking at his Ninja-Turtles t-shirt.

Did Blake have kids? Certainly not kids that old, right? Polly and Amsel had Luke young, so Blake must’ve gotten that woman pregnant in high school…

Amsel tried to remember any whispered conversations, any suspicious absences on Blake’s part. Tried to remember Blake shrugging his shoulders, defeated by pregnancy. But Amsel couldn’t find a memory like that.

They slid past Blake and his family, Amsel averting his eyes, gazing at Wal-Mart’s glossy brown floor. He didn’t know why he didn’t want to talk to Blake, he just felt it deeply. It was akin to a beautiful woman walking by while your wife was next to you; it took a conscious effort to hold your gaze at the floor instead of allowing the magnetism to turn your head.

“We need coffee,” Polly said. Amsel grunted, and busied himself by staring at the multitude of cans. French Roast, Classic Roast, Morning Delight, Folgers, Coffee Time, Heavy Roast, Pure Columbian. Blake was coming closer, inching past them, Luke waving.

Amsel turned to check and see if they were gone, and found himself face to face with his old friend.

“Hey, Blake. How’s it going?”

Blake’s clothes hung loose on him, despite having gained weight since school. He was unshaven, scraggly. His eyes looked like they were burrowing into his skull. “Living in misery,” he grumbled, not stopping, passing Amsel and leaving the aisle.

Amsel laughed. Hard and loud, a bark of laughter that peeled out of his mouth like a muscle car and echoed off the hard floors. Flickering memories came back to him, like a TV antennae struggling to hold the picture. Sitting on the beach with Blake, passing a bottle of Wild Turkey back and forth, drunk, stupid and 17. Smoking cigarettes in a friend’s basement, joking and laughing, playing video games and cards. Wild, unkempt youth, a kind of quasi-suicidal anger that always threatened to bubble over as they did more and more dangerous things. Shooting BB guns at one another in a dilapidated house they’d broken into. Running from the police after stealing liquor from a party store. Swaggering like heroes, swaggering like gunslingers.

The quasi-suicidal notions had hardened like rock candy, crystallized into vague, bored misery. But god damn it if Amsel wasn’t pleased. Good! Someone else was suffering too! Amsel was tired of Facebook posts where people were cheerleading themselves and their bad decisions, congratulating themselves on college grades, being good parents, working hard. Lying with words, lying with pictures, lying with shared posts validating the shitty struggle of minimum wage jobs and the cost of diapers that most of them were going through, because no one went anywhere in Amsel’s town.

But not Blake. Blake did not give a flying fuck. Blake in his deadpan misery, Blake in his baggy shorts, glaring out at the world with bloodshot eyes. Fucking Blake.

Polly steered toward the checkout line, Amsel still grinning. And who would be standing there, but Blake?

He came over to Amsel, shifting a double-box of Frosted Flakes under his arm to shake Amsel’s hand. “Glad you said something, I wasn’t sure it was you.”

Amsel wondered if Blake felt the same jolting trepidation at the aspect of seeing someone who knew you from before, from glorious Before, when you were young and fit and ready to rock. “How’s it going, man?”

Blake shrugged. “Lotta shit. Lotta shit.” He jerked his head at the two kids. “See them? Had to drive 60 hours outta state to get them from a fucking crackhead. Girlfriend’s little brother and sister. We’re gonna adopt them.”

Amsel’s eyes widened. “Really? Wow, that’s a lot to take on. That’s big of you, though.”

“Yeah, well-,” Blake heaved a sigh, “never thought I’d be here. Never thought, two kids already. 7 and 4, never been to school.”

Around them, the checkout lines beeped and booped like controls panels on a great starship. Moms pushed kids in carts, wallets and purses were torn open, debit cards swiped, EBT cards swiped more. Carts full of frozen dinners, breads, cereal, peanut butter, all food, all cheap, as much as possible piled into the carts. The people, who all seemed to be palette swaps of Amsel’s family or Blake’s family, wearing ragged, baggy clothes; ripped jeans and t-shirts, baseball caps proclaiming love for a game none of them could afford to go see in person.

And in the middle of the Walmart self-checkout line stood two guys. No, two kids, still, just young’uns who three years ago swore to one another over a bottle of Wild Turkey that they would not, could not, stay here. Anywhere but here. They would go off to college or hitchhike across the galaxy but they wouldn’t be in this town one minute, one goddamn second longer than they had to.

And now, those same guys, stood in the same town, in the same Wal-Mart their parent’s had shopped in. They stood with crossed arms and frowns, grumbling to one another, at a poverty stricken, reality bitten crossroads within themselves. The only difference was a few more pounds between them; both men with growing pot bellies straining against their t-shirts, like they were both pregnant and their fetuses were reaching out to one another across the void.

“Good to see you’re doing alright,” Blake said.

Amsel glanced at his son, who was clapping and blowing spit bubbles. “Yeah, well, you know-,” another half finished sentence, like all the half finished dreams that sat growing stale, like leftovers pushed to the back of the fridge.

“How do you do it, how do you-,” Blake gestured at the kids, and Amsel thought that was a bit of a loaded question. How do you what? Be a father? Avoid insanity? Stave off the maddening urge to drive your beat-up car that had no heat and alignment issues off the fucking bridge?

But Amsel was raised to be a man of few words and fewer feelings; stoic and stony, that’s what you were supposed to be. “Day by day, that’s how you do it.”

Blake nodded. “The only way.”

Both female counterparts started drifting away, the magnetism pulling on both of the men. The men started seperating, making the noises of good bye.

I’ll see you, you’ll see me, catch ya later, keep it real.

They went to separate exits on either side of the store, walking across the parking lot in unknowing tandem, dark parallels of one another. They both got into their cars with weary sighs, looking briefly to the sky and wondering “What if.”

Gone was the adventure from their legs. Gone was the angry mirth of their youth. Gone were the two gunslingers, who said they were out to change the world.