Some of the greatest writers in history, such as F Scott Fitzgerald and Joseph Heller, started their careers in advertising before penning literary classics. In that tradition, The Winston Fletcher Fiction Prize seeks to encourage great writing within the advertising and marketing industries. Each year the winner receives a cash prize of £2,000, awarded by a jury chaired by Tim Waterstone.
This year’s winner is Michael Hines, a planning partner at Saatchi & Saatchi. You can read his story below.
Two for One
by Michael Hines
The rifle felt strange in her hands, but then maybe it wasn’t the gun itself, just looking through the sight at something you’d always fantasized about and knowing that now the dream could become a reality.
After three hours lying in the same position in the long grass up on a bluff, it had begun, that thing she had heard happened between men and their weapons – she was the rifle, the rifle was her. Already the stock seemed to have curved itself against her cheek like a caress, and ranked behind her and back into history were the numberless others who had carried the same power: the rider on horseback at the frontier twitching at movements up in the rocks of a ravine, the hunter trailing moose through the backwoods, the sniper on a rooftop in Ramadi waiting for the dust to clear to take their shot.
A lot more of them were men than women, but here she was.
What had been strange wasn’t how easy it was – bitter experience had shown that was the way things were – but how boring it had been. All those years of attending arms conventions, picketing gun shops, turning up at rallies to be drenched with beer by The Open Carry Club, pelting NRA members with eggs, turning up in their bars and clubs and golf courses and on their doorsteps showing them pictures of dead children: she had expected buying a gun to be glamorous, a dangerous liaison with people who lived on the edge of things, smelt of gunpowder and cigars, and tossed loaded shooters around whilst slugging moonshine.
She had imagined that she be attracted to them, these gun-people – sex and death were meant to be close together.
Instead, she had spent an hour with an overweight man in plaid who, with his ‘m’aam’ and then ‘sweetheart’ had droned on about rounds per minute, velocity and range, and the hand-feel of the weapon like he was selling a tennis racket or fishing rod. This was what people meant when they talked about the banality of evil.
She had expected, when she walked out holding it a scope, a carry-case, more bullets than anyone could possibly need, and other ‘essentials’ that he had upsold her, to feel it, that even after what had happened it would start to weave its magic just by her touching it, that she was weak and prone as anyone else to its power - even with all the reasons she had to hate it.
The outline of her little body under the sheet
The cold feeling of it under her hand.
The tag on her toe.
The question of who was responsible.
She had been sick shortly after getting home from the gun shop, but she had kept it. The scope created the illusion that he was close enough to touch. The expression lines were burned into her memory from hours of re-watching news and TV footage, that dignified face that never seemed to crack or hint at any remorse for what he did. She had gotten closer in person before, doused him with red dye at a convention in Texas, but even then the mask hadn’t cracked. She had been sprayed with mace and tackled to the floor by security, and as she was dragged away with her eyes burning she had understood that if he didn’t crack at having real children’s blood on his hands, fake blood on his face in front of some convention audience wasn’t likely to make much of a difference either.
That face. She couldn’t have been the first to dwell on it - he probably had other women, there were gun groupies all over the country that would let him shoot his weapon into them whenever he wanted – but then maybe he was the sort of family man who justified selling death for a living by being beige, having occasional missionary sex with his wife and going to church every Sunday and cooking incredible brisket, all of which went into the grand ledger to balance him being responsible for thousands of needless fatalities all over the country every year.
Still, the life that you could build selling weapons was impressive. It was Disneyland built on death. From her elevated position she had already spent too long letting her telescopic gaze travel over every room of the house, the high ceilings, the cut crystal glasses and expensive furnishings. It was the sort of grand old pile that announced its intentions as the castle of some sort of dynasty from the foundations up, and made no attempts to hide itself or the people that lived in it – the lack of a moat was the only letdown.
Back when she had a family, this would have been the sort of thing she might have dreamed about.
She imagined that this was where they all met, after Sandyhook, after Columbine, after Parkland, after all the other ones whose names should have meant something – like Selma, Gettysburg, The Somme, places where some symbolic step should have been taken in the direction of progress because of what happened there - but which soon became just another name on the list after every new ‘lone wolf’ incident. Whilst people made ‘never again’ noises, they probably met here to talk about rising share prices, the market power of wanting to defend one’s family, the cost of doing business, collateral damage, compensation, negative externalities, to perform the collective moral contortions that allowed them to keep selling.
Had her daughter – and her ten classmates, the two full-time schoolteachers and one supply teacher - even merited one of those meetings, or did only the really big ones get that treatment?
She used to tell her students that you needed to communicate to people in language that they understood. These people spoke to politicians with money, but violence was the grammar and vocabulary of their lives, and it was high time someone sent them a message in a tongue they would listen to.
After she pulled the trigger, who would take his place, who would step up onto a podium holding up a gun, and say something like ‘from my cold dead hands’, instead of him? There would always be someone, but maybe there would at least be some moment of pause for having lost one of their own. There would be no grand epiphany or climbdown, but there might be at least a moment of remorse, of recognition that they were living in the ruin of a world that they had put to the torch.
She had two bullets. She might only need one, but if she missed, she got a second go.
There was the question of how he slept at night, not only from the guilt, but when he knew exactly just how many guns and bullets there were out there across the country waiting to be used.
An antique musket hung in a glass case above the fireplace, but that couldn’t have been his only insurance or protection policy – it was something you might expect at a Civil War Re-Enactment Weekend. It didn’t even look like it was working, let alone loaded. Besides, even NRA Representatives knew the one about the gun above the fireplace in Act One. There must have been a triple-locked cabinet somewhere on the property that prying young fingers couldn’t access - or maybe he practised what he preached, encouraged them to exercise their Second-Amendment Rights, learn the family trade, let them handle them, play with them, taught them at the dinner table the arguments about why every American should own one.
There was a long garden running down out of sight from the house, and somewhere at the bottom of it she pictured the outdoor range, a place where instead of normal family yard games like pick-up football or building treehouses or jump-rope he taught them how to lift it, to brace the weapon against the shoulder, to squint down the barrel and breath steady. This garden was where they had all taken their first shots.
Her first swim.
Her riding a bicycle for the first time.
Her playing her first chord on the piano.
Her first day at school.
The first shot she would have ever heard.
All the other firsts she didn’t get to see – that she wouldn’t get to see her see.
Here in the comfort of his own home, with his life arrayed around him, this was the place to do it. It was better to dethrone the king naked in bed than in front of the court in all of his robes and finery.
The living room door opened, and the queen entered.
Her finger tightened around the trigger, and she realised that in all the months of investigating, she had thought as much about her as about him – that maybe it was to come up here and see her that she had come this far.
She had been expecting some gun-loving equivalent of a Playboy Bunny, Miss February with Firearms, the sort that you saw posing on social media or tweeting at Fox News with a rifle in very little clothing and holding it up to their face like the giant cock-substitute that it was. The lady of the manor was more of the Stepford Wife type, hair coiffed and nails done on a Sunday afternoon, bearing coffee and pot-roast – the sort of woman whose house she would have once hated being invited to only because everything there was almost too lovely, thought-through with love and tenderness and care and attention.
She watched her put the food down – so carefully, so as not to spill anything – and then stroke the back of his head, and felt her hatred fizzle away. She had been expecting some company woman whose life was no different to a Mafia Moll or wife of the Nazi High Command, someone who not only looked the other way but loved her proximity to power, who stood behind her man, who valued loyalty above all other things.
She had once been her, serving someone food and waiting nervously around to see if they liked it and could taste the love she put into it.
That was before, too.
Now, there was the question of why she was doing this, and not him. He hadn’t been enough of a man.
The months of not talking.
The moment when he had found her gun.
The weeks of argument.
The noise the door made when he slammed it for the last time.
Did this woman, the one who thought about everything, fear for the lives of her children, did she lie awake like other parents did, when another one happened, running through the scenarios, asking what would happen if it were hers? Maybe her children went to a school so expensive that there was no chance a shooting would ever happen. Maybe, for people like them, violence was something that happened elsewhere, that happened to other people, that had nothing to do with what they sold to other people.
Maybe, she had fallen in love with this man without knowing what he did for a living, or had done something else entirely, and by the time he got into the industry they had already had kids and it was too late for her to back out. Maybe, if it was her in the same situation, she might have been on the other end of this scope, and this woman would have been up on the bluff in the long grass wondering whether to break her life into pieces in repayment.
She had never noticed how pale her daughter’s skin was until she saw it on the slab, where it had darkened to a shade closer to blue. Her little fingers and porcelain-white body had been cold to the touch.
Maybe she might, once, have seen her as a victim too, to have felt some sense of sisterhood or sorrow for the woman on the other side of this. That was before.
She had two bullets. She had two options.
She had done her practise, of course, the months of shooting at tin cans and targets, the visits to the range, the learning of not just how to fire the gun but to care for it, to clean it and oil it and make sure it didn’t jam, and as she had done so she had felt some part of her disappear.
Firing the gun was fantasy, wish-fulfilment, but fixing it so it didn’t break? Every time she did it, the reality became a little bit closer.
It still wasn’t enough.
As one of her last acts beforehand, she had gone out hunting and shot a stag. It was important to do a dry run, so that she would not tremble and back out of it at the last minute due to the small matter of her being a school teacher whose last experience of causing physical harm had been breaking up a pigeon’s nest in the rafters of their old house.
Back when she was still trying to make sense of it all, she had been looking into what it was like, psychologically, to take a life, what had been going through someone’s head when the trigger was pulled. She had read somewhere – or maybe seen it on the National Geographic channel – that there was a name for the feeling that when you were about to kill. ‘Bokke Fever’, the big game hunters in South Africa called it, that moment when you looked through the sight, and the Springbok or whatever other innocent creature you’re about to kill feels it and looks back, and there’s a moment where you both recognise that you’re part of The Circle of Life or whatever, some form of sacred and blessed bond between hunter and prey. She had been downwind from the doe - it would have been a better rehearsal for what she was going to do to have gunned down some big-antlered rutting male in his prime - which made it feel like a female-on-female crime.
There was no Bokke Fever, just the creature’s lolling eye and shallow, laboured breathing when she had caught up with its splayed body, and then the long moment it had taken her to push the gun against its – against her, it had been a she, it was important to know as much as possible about something before you killed it – skull, look it in the eye, and pull the trigger again.
A ‘mercy killing’, they called it, when you shot something again when you had not killed it when you shot it for no reason the first time.
Had there been mercy killings at the school? Had he come back to finish anyone off having winged them with the automatic weapon that his mental health record should have made it impossible for him to buy?
This was going to be a mercy killing. She came out of mercy. This was an act of mercy, for all of the other families, all of the other children out there. That is how she needed to see it to do it.
Everything in scope went blurry, but the wind rustling the long grass whipped her tear away as it fell. She didn’t know who or what she was crying for any more – it was just wasting time, an excuse not to do it, she was hoping that someone would come, someone would catch her and maybe shoot her instead, or negotiate her out of doing it at all. One good reason to back out was all she was waiting for.
She had two bullets, and now two of them were here. She could take one shot, and if she didn’t miss, take the other. Or she could just use one. One was enough. One was too many already.
There were things that you were meant to do, in this situation: when she pulled the trigger she was meant to say that it was from someone, or for someone, or call her daughter’s name; she should have carved the date of the shooting into the shell casing, or done something that might load just cause into the breach along with the round. It would have sped things up, stopped her delaying, looking deeper into the life that she was about to ruin when if she was a professional she would have turned up, pulled the trigger and been done with it.
She wiped her eyes, and squinted back into the scope.
The door opened again, and a little girl ran in.
She must have been a year older than her daughter had been when it had happened, and she leapt into his lap in the same way that all little girls leapt onto adults at that age, as if they have nothing to fear in this life or the next.
She had been afraid for her daughter whenever she did handstands or jumped on someone or played in the street, but that was just because she hadn’t understood the magnitude of what fear could be, of the things that you should be afraid of as a parent.
In the living room, the well-rehearsed scenes of their Sunday afternoon, the wholesome family sitcom for all ages, played out through the scope with the sound off. here were dad jokes, laughter, rough-and-tumble, the usual charades that they no doubt went through every evening when he was home.
She had two bullets. Two more than she wanted to use.
She found herself leaning forward to see if the wind carried something to her, if someone might say something loud enough to reach her and change her mind, if maybe by hearing their voices she might see them as people.
You read and heard about the banality of evil, you prepared yourself for it. Less about the wholesomeness of it, that it spent its Sundays like this, in the same way she had spent hers before someone had sold a gun to someone who had sold it who had stolen it who had lost it to someone who found it who gave it who sold it to the wrong person, who used it.
After five minutes - maybe ten - of family mime, he began to bounce his knee in rhythm, and all three of them began to sing.
For a few moments, watching him, his wife, and his daughter, as their lips moved in harmony and they clapped their hands in time, it seemed to her that whatever they were singing was the most beautiful song in all the world, a song of the sort of beauty that she would no longer be able to hear or appreciate again. They belonged to a world that she had been thrown out of.
She shut her eyes, but still saw the eight years she had been given with her daughter on her knee, of moments like this in a smaller house with less money and no awareness of what was to come, and then thought of all the other moments that she had lost.
A Tuesday evening struggling with her homework.
A night swimming together in their local lake.
Another Fourth of July bonfire together.
A Friday playing guitar together.
Any Sunday. This Sunday.
He was allowed a Sunday afternoon like this with his wife and his daughter, eating pot-roast and reading the paper and singing a song with his little girl in his beautiful huge house with its fancy drapings and furniture whilst she was up here on a bluff with nothing but a gun and two bullets, waiting to do something that might make him remember the daughter he was responsible for taking from her.
The dead air between them expanded, and her inability to hear that song, the song that they were singing, the song of every silly complete family whose children were still alive all across the country on a Sunday, seemed to be everything that was wrong with the world, a form of injustice that she had never thought of before, something that she could no longer let stand.
She had two bullets.
Her breathing slowed, and she closed both eyes for what might have been a few seconds, or ten minutes.
Still, despite it all, she hoped that when she opened them, they would have left the room, and her time would have passed, and she could have crawled away backwards and broken down the rifle and gone home.
She opened her eyes, and they were still there, and she could no longer run from what she was there to do.
The rifle moved over all three of them, over him, over his wife’s face, over the child’s, and then settled on one of them.
The wind stopped, nature looking the other way and giving assent to whatever was to happen next.
She thought, for a moment, that she saw him look up at the window in her direction – the Bokke Fever kicking in at last - and then she heard the crack of a rifle, and felt the recoil against her shoulder, and saw the little girl buck in her father’s arms like he had just bounced her on his knee.
There was a moment – who knew how long a moment could be? – when there was only the world after that gunshot, the exhalation of the breath she had been taught to keep in when pulling the trigger, the ache in her shoulder, the sound of the wind in the grass, the clean hole in the windowpane with the cracks webbing out from it, and the curl of smoke twisting away from the barrel of the rifle into the air.
Several hundred feet away, the little girl slumped forward and away from him like a doll, and then before he could catch her, pitched face-first onto the carpet.
She took her eye away from the scope because she had no desire to see what came next, the moment when they tried to make sense of what had been bought into their home and where it came from, and started to back away, crawling, so as not to skyline herself and give her position away.
She had one bullet.
She cleared the chamber, and stood up. Despite herself, she lifted the rifle again, and looked down the scope to gaze into their still-silent living room, at the red stain on the carpet, and then at their faces, at the cracks that at last had appeared in the mask, and then finally, even though she hadn’t wanted to, at her.
She saw in the woman’s face, in the numbness the way that she was kneeling by
her daughter’s prone form, cradling her head and pushing her blood-soaked hair away from her face, what she once must have been, and what she had lost. This was the woman that she had once been, and somewhere along the way she had allowed them to take that from her along with her daughter, in exchange for this gun and too many bullets.
She had meant to drag them into her world, but instead, she had dragged herself into theirs. She had wanted them to feel what she had felt, and instead she had felt what they felt when they carried their power, their guns, their bullets.
She thought, now, of the bullets that she had bought and then thrown away, of what they might be used for, of how easy it was for them to end up somewhere they shouldn’t.
She still had one bullet left. If she didn’t do something with it, someone else would.
More than what she had just done, it was this knowledge that that made her turn the weapon around, and use it on herself.