Luck’s Run wasn’t a city so much as a refueling stop, a name on a sign on I-79 about halfway between Charleston and Morgantown. The air soured and stank from natural gas wells and corpses of skunks struck by coal trucks. Power lines dangled everywhere like depressed snakes.
From the off-ramp, the state route in both directions disappeared into shadow, darkened between tree-thick hills, revealing occasional houses (broke-down, barely habitable), followed half a mile north by two gas stations and a McDonald’s. People at these establishments were rarelymore than passers-through.
Bobby Dodds, the one who fired his .25 pistol at the black bear, was passing through, too. That overheated Sunday in June, he and his date Mandy were on their way to Charleston to see a bluegrass concert on Mountain Stage. A pale, skinny young man—blond, big-eyed, with a crooked opossum’s face—Bobby had the heart of a boxer and the skills of a paper target. He lost every fight he’d ever been in, even the ones that mattered.
The bear was little more than a cub. It ambled down Grick’s Mountain, out of the woods, and across Luck’ Run, the creek for which the unincorporated town had been named. From there, it found the McDonald’s parking lot. Maybe it smelled cheeseburgers in the dumpster out back, or maybe it wanted to explore. Once there, it ran playful circles around the iron pole holding up the big red sign with a yellow M on it.
Bobby fired from fifty feet away. His bullet struck iron with a sound like a puck slapping the crossbar behind a goalie’s head. The cub lurched at the sudden noise, rearing like a horse. After that, it took off, loping and bounding toward the creek and safety of the trees.
Mandy Justice leaned back against Bobby’s dirty white Ford. Wind blew strands of green and black hair over her forehead and across her eyes. She didn’t move to brush them away.
“You think you got it?” she asked.
“Scared it,” he said. “Not sure if I drew blood.”
He wanted to impress Mandy and make her feel safe. Sue, his first girlfriend, told him straight up, “You can’t protect me, and I need a man who can.” Her words were mosquitos, biting him in all his relationships that followed. They sang to him like the lyrics of a childhood tune from some Disney movie, one of those where the beaten-down hero comes through in the end. But Bobby never came through or saved the day. He couldn’t protect his last girlfriend, Cheryl, when the two of them were robbed at knifepoint by a junkie on some Morgantown side street, and he embarrassed himself in front of Jill, the redhead, when she took him to buy weed and her dealer slapped him down because he made one smartass remark about how the cops would love this place. Bobby had always been weak, fragile, and slow.
Bobby started toting around the .25 a few months back after the state legislature passed a law allowing concealed carry without a permit. He kept the gun in his glove compartment most of the time, taking it out on occasion just to hold. He liked the thought of the little pistol. He felt like it gave him extra muscles without his needing to do curls or bench press more than a rolled-up newspaper.
That Sunday, he pulled off the Interstate for burgers and a bathroom break. He got out first and walked around, opening Mandy’s door. He gave her his arm, helping her down. She stumbled a bit, but he held her up.
Mandy saw the bear first. She nearly cried out, covering her mouth with one hand so the noise sounded like more of a gasp.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’ve got you.” Without stopping to think, he climbed back into the truck, opened the glovebox, withdrew the pistol, hopped down, took careful aim, and fired. Just once. The gun barely bucked in his hands.
Bobby wanted Mandy to believe he could protect her. Proving that, for him, would be like finding a gold coin in one of those videogames he liked to play.
Ten minutes later, he still thought that, even while he hunkered on his knees in the parking lot, surrounded by four state troopers wearing their olive uniforms and hats. Three of them had their guns drawn and pointed at Bobby, a fourth waggling a pair of shiny steel
The cops were friendly, for the most part. One said, “You couldn’t kill a rabbit with that toy.” Another joked, “Good thing you missed. You’d’ve done pissed him off.”
Yes, he fired one shot, and he hit only iron. Even so, he felt a warm swirl of happiness.
He looked up at Mandy as she spoke to a fifth trooper. She turned and caught his gaze for a second before the green curtains fell and covered her eyes again. In the pause, that instant toward the infinite, she grinned at him and nodded. That was enough.
Bobby welcome that flush of pride. He’d done what needed doing. He stepped up, played the hero, saved the day. He got it right, and Mandy would love him for it just as soon as he called his parents and made bail.
Ace Boggess is author of four books of poetry, most recently I Have Lost the Art of Dreaming It So (Unsolicited Press, 2018) and Ultra Deep Field (Brick Road, 2017), and the novel A Song Without a Melody (Hyperborea, 2016). His recent fiction appears in Notre Dame Review, Lumina, Belmont Story Review, and Flyway. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia.