“Playing With Guns” by Shanalee Smith

Image by Eric Chegwin

I could never remember
what had riled us up
like a nest of snakes
shaking our rattles and
sinking venom into tissue.
Just the intense
sensation of my own
blood, jackhammering
through my pulse points.
We were born and bred
for malice, tossed to
the familial oubliette,
taught to eagerly eradicate
softness or axiom.

Unexpectedly, you bolted
abandoning our altercation
in favour of the dark
chambers offering shelter
and sturdy doors.
I was too incensed
to permit your escape,
gave chase to the usually locked
recess of our mother’s room.
You were lying in wait for me.
Her room was cavernous –
the only window blacked out
decades ago.
I couldn’t see
the nine millimetre
until you raised it, level with
my brow. I stared at the
small hole, blacker than
the black gun or the dark

Did Mom see this coming?
When she put that gun
in her nightstand,
brought us here collectively,
showed us where she’d stashed
the full clip of two-toned
bullets, did she know what
it would lead to?
I had no doubt
about your next move.
Daily, you dug knuckles
into the plastron of my ribs
and soft balloon solar plexus,
drove your Nikes into my shins or
spine. More than once, you
had introduced me
to the business end
of a butcher knife.
I was oddly resigned
to this inevitable outcome.

You hesitated. It was the only
thing that had the power
to shock me. I saw
a shadow of humanity
clutch at your face. I
couldn’t make anything
of it.
There is a finite number
of milliseconds that one
can lock eyes with the muzzle
of a gun before their sanity
leaks out
like so much water.
“Pull the trigger or put
it down.”
I would not give you
my back for target
practice. I would not
permit you the justification:
it just went off.
There would be
no struggle but
your own.
The malignant snap
of the trigger,
resonant as the gunshot
would have been
had the safety
not been on.


Shanalee Smith was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona. Her poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming from Sandscript Literary Magazine, The White Rabbit Zine and Slipstream. Currently attending the MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, she is hard at work on her first book-length poetry collection.

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  1. pallytruck

    I love this piece an excellent use of language and gripping to the reader.

  2. Jeff Bell

    After reading this poem, I purchased subscription to Neon. This is a magnificent poem and makes me feel like my family is normal now! Gripping it is!