The Weight Pulling Everything Down

The boys stand ten paces apart, backs facing, the sun rising pink as a scar across the eastern sky. They pause, the weight of the muzzle-loaded pistols heavy. Hammers cocked. The bullet-proof vests they bought off eBay chafe the skin of their shoulders, and though it’s chilly this April morning, sweat runs in trails down their backs.

High school juniors, they have been studying the American Revolution, and the founding fathers. But the inspiration beyond the video assignment from their teacher is the musical, Hamilton. They know all the words; all the ways history has been changed to fit the themes of the play. The assignment and their imaginations dovetail perfectly. 

Afterward, neither boy will admit whose idea it was to use real guns, to buy the vests, to film their possible tragedies. One boy would never speak again, and the other boy didn’t have the cunning to blame him. 

A million miles from Weehawken, New Jersey, they walk onto the sandy beach of a lake in the heartland. Where grandfathers hide a pair of guns perfect for dueling behind a painting of a ship cantering through some nameless bay. Across the water, a rusting hulk of an abandoned factory leeching a miasma of mutating chemicals into the water. It’s hard for either of these boys to imagine themselves standing in a spot of any significance. The thrill of holding the gun flares in goose bumps across their forearms. 

They spent hours watching videos on YouTube before they could load them. Luckily, the grandfather had all the necessary materials in his leaning garage. They learned this type of scavenging from video games they’d gotten for Christmas and birthdays. Neither had said this out loud, but they’d been living a video game existence for a while. Anarchy and chaos were more fun than talking about their feelings. None of it was real until they got the guns loaded and, in their hands, standing on the beach, ready to turn and fire. 

They were confident that no one would get hurt, that injuries only happened if you were careless. And they had done the research, the ground-laying. One of them would fire into the sky, while the other would aim for the chest. To make it real, they hadn’t decided who would aim for the sky and who would aim for the body. 

Their phones are set-up on tripods, each of the boys hitting record before moving into position. Unlike the Hamilton-Burr duel, there would be irrefutable evidence. One of them would play the villain, sure, but it was all theater. They were excited to see the footage, to manipulate it into uploads of the explosion of smoke, of the impact, of the twist of violence. 

In their everyday lives, each felt awash in obscurity. They watched their classmates forming circles, attending football games, holding hands with girls. Striding to the front of the auditorium podiums to receive awards and accolades while they floundered. 

The lake water laps the sandy shore. The smell of brine and goose shit warming in the sun gossamers the air. They finger triggers, the metal slick but rigid. Nothing like mashing a button on their controllers. 

Ten paces is really fucking close. A livewire tightens their stomach muscles. No breakfasts this morning. No texts or snaps either. For now, guns pointed down. 

They hold up their left hands, counting down from three on their fingers. They’ve practiced the pivot in the week leading up to today’s demo. Starting over each time they were out of sync. A hundred times until they were within milliseconds, using Nerf guns to simulate the actual duel. This play fighting was for children, an easy demonstration for their assignment, but they wanted a moment filled with the possibility of injury and death. 

Their turns were perfect, but the upswing of their arms was off. The weight of the guns unaccounted for as they each pulled a trigger. A crack of thunder rattled their hands, smoke exploded, the bore of slugs moved faster than a blink. One of them fell. Flat backed, sand sugaring an ear, the line of a jaw. The camera caught the one standing, dropping his gun. The dull metal glinted like a match struck. The boy stood for a second, before running toward his friend, fell to his knees in the sand, and synced their foreheads. shit, shit, shit

They love each other. Neither could say it out loud. There’s too much to say, so they never mention it. They’re bros and dudes clearing the space between them when things become too intimate. They make allowances to keep each other safe. 

The boy on the ground surfaces, moaning, clutching his throat, something crushed. The other boy looks around. Lost in the wonder of the lack of adults. They had made plans, scrupulous steps to take in case something went wrong, but the boy thinks of skipping rocks with his grandfather, thinks of juvie, of ways to cover this up. 

Everything caught on tape. Played throughout the trial. The pundits wonder how he could have forgotten about the phones. Silent witnesses even as he throws the guns into the lake. Even as he bends over the other boy, before running to the parking lot and his car. The patient way he reverses, puts the car in gear, heading out of town. Until his car runs out of gas, and the police surround him on the side of the highway two hundred and twenty-six miles from home.

Kevlar vest still on, looking like a child dressed in their father’s old parka, saying He’s dead, right? Just tell me

And they think they have a confession. But the standing boy hasn’t said anything, not really. The town police, the other boy’s parents, the prosecutor, the media all say they have the evidence. Everything is known, they say. As long as he retains those words, at least for now, it’s as if nothing of life-swerving consequence has occurred.


Tommy Dean is the author of two flash fiction chapbooks, Special Like the People on TV (Redbird Chapbooks, 2014) and Covenants (ELJ Editions, 2021), and a full flash collection, Hollows (Alternating Current Press 2022). He lives in Indiana, where he currently is the Editor at Fractured Lit and Uncharted Magazine. A recipient of the 2019 Lascaux Prize in Short Fiction, his writing can be found in Best Microfiction 2019 and 2020, Best Small Fiction 2019 and 2022, Monkeybicycle, and numerous litmags. Find him at and on Twitter @TommyDeanWriter.