I lifted the rifle again and swung the tip of the barrel straight up into the air. I figured I could gradually lower the barrel at the screen, aim, and pick off one of the Japa nese troops. With all my strength I slowly lowered the barrel and held it steady enough to finally get the ball centered inside the V, and when I saw a tiny Japanese soldier leap out of a bush I quickly pulled the trigger and let him have it.
BLAM! The rifle fired off and violently kicked out of my grip. It flipped into the air before clattering down across the picnic table and sliding onto the ground. "Oh sweet cheeze-us!" I wailed, and dropped butt-first onto the table. "Ohhh! Cheeze-us-crust!" I didn't know the rifle was loaded. I hadn't put a shell in the chamber.
My ears were ringing like air raid warnings. I tried to stand but was too dizzy and flopped over. "This is bad. This is bad," I whispered over and over as I desperately gripped the tabletop.
"Jaaaack!" I heard my mother shriek and then the screen door slammed behind her.
"If I'm not already dead I soon will be," I said to myself.
She sprinted across the grass and mashed through a bed of peonies and lunged toward me like a crazed animal. Before I could drop down and hide under the picnic table she pounced on me. "Oh... my... God!" she panted, and grabbed at my body as I tried to wiggle away. "Oh dear Lord! There's blood! You've been shot! Where?" Then she gasped and pointed directly at my face. Her eyes bugged out and her scream was so highpitched it was silent.
I tasted blood. "Oh cheeze!" I shouted. "I've been shot in the mouth!"
With the dish towel still clutched in her hand she pressed it against my forehead.
"Am I dying?" I blubbered. "Is there a hole in my head? Am I breathing?"
I felt her roughly wiping my face while trying to get a clear look at my wound. "Oh, good grief," she suddenly groaned, and flung her bloodied arms down to her side.
"What?" I asked desperately. "Am I too hurt to be fixed?"
"It's just your nose problem!" she said, exasperated.
"Your dang bloody nose!" Then she pressed the towel to my face again. "Hold it there tightly," she instructed, "I'll go get another one."
She stomped back toward the house, and I sat there for a few torturous minutes with one hand pressing the towel against my nose and breathed deeply through my mouth. Even through the blood I could smell the flinty gunpowder from the bullet. Dad is going to kill me, I thought. He'll court-martial me and sentence me to death by firing squad. Before I could fully imagine the tragic end of my life I heard an ambulance wailing up the Norvelt road. It took a turn directly into Miss Volker's driveway and stopped. The driver jumped out and sprinted toward her house and jerked open the porch door.
That's not good, I thought and turned cold all over. If I shot Miss Volker through the head Mom will never believe it was an accident. She'll think I was just trying to get out of going to her house in the morning.
I lowered myself down onto the picnic bench and then onto the grass which was slippery from my blood. I trotted across the yard to our screen door. I was still bleeding so I stood outside and dripped on the doormat. Please, please, please, don't let me have shot her, I thought over and over. I knew I had to say something to Mom, so I gathered up a little courage and as casually as possible said, "Um, there happens to be an ambulance at Miss Volker's house."
But Mom was a step ahead of me. "Don't worry," she said right back. "I just now called down there. She's fine. You didn't shoot her if that is what you are thinking." "I was," I admitted. "I thought I shot her dead!"
"It wasn't that," she said, now frowning at me from the other side of the door. "The shock from hearing the rifle go off caused her to drop her hearing aid down the toilet - I guess she had it turned up too high."
Excerpted from Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos. Copyright © 2011 by Jack Gantos. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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