Every year as spring became summer, the local elementary school announced that signup sheets would be posted for their annual theater camp. As usual, a second sheet would need to be taped up beside it, and the school board would ask the City Council if they could hire more camp counselors. Every year, the City Council would agree without question to increase their budget to pay the hourly wages of the added staff. “This summer camp,” they’d declare, “has become our life blood. We all very much look forward to the productions they put on, and the quality of these shows, boy, you’d think Broadway put down their roots right behind our grammar school.”
The plays were always performed in the amphitheater behind the school. This year, Annie Get Your Gun was selected, but after concern was expressed by several parents in the community, the school board informed the director, Miss Lindquist, that all references to guns must be removed, and no guns, fake, real or in-between, would be used as props.
“Of course they’ll be fake,” Miss Lindquist protested, taken aback that they’d even think she might use a real gun on stage.
“We know that. A gun can’t even be indicated. We just have to be clear. We know it puts you in a tough position, but this is where we’re at on this.”
“I understand,” she said, defeated, starting to turn over ideas for other shows to do instead. However, the next day was a scorcher, and local weather stations all reported they’d be looking at one hell of a hot summer.
So, Miss Lindquist decided they’d do Annie Get Your Gun, but they’d embrace the key revisions. It would now be titled Annie Get Your Water Balloon and instead of shooting matches, there’d be live water balloon fights. Audiences were encouraged to come prepared to get soaked.
Parents, looking to cool down by the end of a hot afternoon, would come watch the end of rehearsals. They’d sit in the front row and encourage their kids, up there on stage squealing with delight, to miss their scene partner, in fact miss wildly and get them, get them good in the chest!
On opening night, friends, family, and the community at large arrived early, all vying to get seats in the front row, the so called splash zone.
The opening song wasn’t halfway over when the trees to the left of the stage were pushed aside and a young boy, dressed as a cowboy, a black bandanna hiding his face, emerged from the woods. He approached the stage, took out a black pistol and took aim. Pop!
Mr. Halliver, back in the 10th row, jumped up. “Holy shit! We have a gun man!” He shouted. And with that, he pulled out the gun he had concealed in his shirt, quick to get a good grip as he was well practiced, and fired away at the boy. One bullet hit him in the shoulder. The next one hit him in the stomach. The final shot hit him in the thigh. The boy fell back and was dead before his head smacked the side of the stage.
In the little shed that served as the light and sound booth, Calvin Peeples heard the gunshots, saw the crowd ducking down, and he yelled “Holy shit we have a gun man!” And he too pulled the small handgun he had tucked into his shorts, covered up by his baggy Camp Flock T-shirt, and didn’t bother wasting time to slide open the glass window. He fired through it at the tall man standing, the one pointing a gun at the stage. His bullet penetrated the back of the man’s skull, and the people in the surrounding rows were recipients of an unwelcome dousing in a different splash zone. Mrs. Halliver caught her husband’s slump body before he could fall onto the people in front of him. She held him up, braced him to keep him standing, and she howled. “Wake up Fred, wake up!” Fred would never wake beside her ever again, but she, for a moment, wanted to pretend that repercussion wasn’t final.
Calvin Peeples hadn’t heard the cap gun, nor had he seen the little boy come out of the woods. He had only witnessed Mr. Halliver firing at the stage. His worst fear was finally happening, a shooter on school grounds. At that moment he thought, “good thing I’ve practiced for this, here comes your hero!”
While later being questioned at the police station, he didn’t feel much like a hero, and it occurred to him that all the time he spent at the firing range had rewired him. He told the police he couldn’t remember when he’d last felt like himself. “What’s it feel like to not always be on the lookout? Why am I asking you? You guys have to be on the lookout! I wish I could walk out of this body, step back into a younger Calvin Peeples, go back to living and let the impostor, the clone of Calvin Peeples face prosecution.”
“Hold it, no one is pressing charges just yet, we’re just trying to figure this thing out.”
The little boy that was shot dead was Stevie Jenkins. He was in the ensemble of Annie Get Your Water Balloon. He quit three weeks before the show opened because his dad would ask him every time he came home from camp “you still doing that pussy play?” Stevie would nod, his dad would continue. “Those lame asses. Goddam political correctness. It’s an outrage! They’re trying to brainwash you! I hope you don’t think it’s okay when the government pounds down our door to take our guns! Cuz I’ll tell you something, on that day, I’ll teach you what it is to stand your ground! I’m also going to tell you something, I’m not going to come see Annie get your dippy water balloon, nope! Sorry buddy, but I’m not paying ten bucks to condone that crap!”
His dad was correct about a lot of things, so Stevie figured he had to be spot on about this. His dad showed him a few of his guns, locked away in a cabinet in the basement. The man seemed even more in the right when Stevie felt the weight of his hunting rifle, when he saw how magnified things were in the scope.
“You’re a little young, but when you’re old enough,” his dad whispered in his ear. “We’ll have some fun with these.”
Stevie could smell the residue of old gunpowder.
His dad sneered “they should do that damn play without whitewashing the guns out like they’re something so offensive and hideous. Damn them! What they should be doing, son, is teaching you to respect the power of the weapon.”
That night they stopped at Walmart. Mr. Jenkins bought Stevie a cap gun. He gave the cashier a hard time about the orange tip. “That’s dinky shit, c’mon!” When they got home, Mr. Jenkins took it out to the garage and spray painted the tip to its rightful black.
“When it’s done drying, go play kiddo.”
Mr. Jenkins would never get to teach his son what it is to stand his ground.
When Mrs. Halliver could no longer hold her husband’s weight, she slowly lowered him to the bench. The people on either side had already slid away.
The stage was empty. The players had fled backstage. A lone water balloon lay abandoned, rolling near the edge, about to drop into the pit area. But no, it balanced there against the platform’s lip. The splinters weren’t enough to pop this. It’d need a good shove for it to go over, for the water to darken the pavement with its splatter.