“The Trigger” by Allison Ivans Coulson


Kate and I had always attempted to keep away from our parents, and this was normally quite easy, as Mum and Dad attempted to keep away from us. That July one of Dad’s work associates, a German, had lent us his summer villa in Benamargosa, a village carelessly slung across the barren hills, an hour outside of Malaga. I hated the house—the shutters closed until sunset, the dark, cool brightness of the walls, the white-washed rooms filled with deep mahogany wood (a contrast that almost hurt). We were meant to stay there a month; we stayed less than two weeks—and, for the most part, we maintained our distance, anyway.

The afternoon of the gunshot, Mum and Dad had been sitting on the front veranda, overlooking the brown cliffs, the air was dry and heavy, heat radiated from the hills. Mum was lazily stirring tea, Dad reading the Euro Weekly News. Kate was on the floor between them, lying on her stomach, reading Metamorphoses, which Dad had first extracted from some bookshelf two days before and hurled at me with a sharp, “For once, sit still.” Being seven, the book seemed foreign, incomprehensible, but Kate had taken it, reading sections at a time, translating them to me later, creating scenes for us to act out in the lemon orchard.

I had watched Kate reading from across the portico, and staring at my arms, believing the sun was about to transform me into a lizard, like the yellow and brown ones watching us from the walls. I wanted to climb into her lap, tell her about my potential metamorphosis, show her how the shade was moving anti-clockwise and circling around, but our parents were there, so I kept my mouth shut. Instead, I stared at Mum, who, after a few minutes, looked up, pursing her lips, words about to emerge. Kate, catching the gaze, closed her book and walked over to me, taking my hand, as she asked our parents for permission to leave.

“Go on then,” Mum sighed, with a wave of her hand. Dad didn’t even twitch, and I wondered whether he had heard. Mum then tagged on, “Just don’t go too far.”

I skipped down the dirt path, Kate following, the sunlight burning our bodies, smacking our eyes shut, and once we were a good enough distance from the house, I said, “Let’s look for the well.”  The well was mythical, an invention of Kate’s, I think. We spent hours wherever we were searching for it. Kate taking my hand whenever our parents began to raise their voices, saying, “We’re going to find it today. I know we will.”

The well lay precisely on the border between the backwoods of the unknown and our yard—wherever our yard was, whether in Fowey or St. Ives or Benamargosa. It was difficult to find the well because it was merely a dark opening in the earth, only a meter or two across, covered by green grass or wet snow or slippery mud (depending on the locale and the season). Nothing marked it.  But, it was dangerous—a deep, deep hole, a wide open mouth, a place where you could lean over the edge and fall into the depths of, and beyond.

Scrambling through the orchard, we searched, the bushes and trees rustling with life, buzzing with the reedy siren of cicadas. Taking sticks, we poked at the grass, the reddish-brown dirt, regular Robinson Crusoes, running along the incline and back through the groves, throwing lemons as missiles, peeling them open, sucking and pulling our cheeks in, heading down towards the barren riverbank, where, we liked to imagine, a collage of foliage, a rainbow of color and scent, once grew—once upon a time when the river flowed strong and fast.

I don’t know how long we had been gone, but as we were crossing the imaginary river, we heard the gunshot. At the sound, I ran towards the house—away from the dried up river bed where Kate and I were playing—up the dirt path, through the lemon grove, slipping on the rotting avocados, tripping on the bones that Sally constantly buried and unearthed. Because I approached from the back fields, the terrace’s chain-link fence separated me from my parents standing in the white kitchen. I scrambled up it, intending to slide over, but I had forgotten about the wire barbs on top, and my arm caught as I fell down into the prickly bushes—landing hard, blood dribbling down, caught in the no-man’s land between the fence and the thorny shrubs. I stayed, quiet, crawling into position, one hand on the fence, the other on the shrubbery, the distant scene unfolding before me like a silent film, although the sliding doors were open and my parents were shouting.

The stage was set: Gun. Mum. Dad. In my memory, the three are connected: my parents assembled for an old western-style shootout. Even though I know this is not true, not what happened.

My mother was gesturing, red fingertips, her movements large, dark hair pinned back into a chignon. My father was stoic, grasping his Ruger pistol, which I recognized because it was his favorite, hauling it with him whenever he hunted foxes or hares back home in Cornwall—but had never used (at least not to my knowledge), relying instead on his 17 Remington or Winchester 3.

Dad extended his arm then, took aim with the small handgun, and I flinched, caught between the shrub and fence, thinking: my father means to kill her; he means to kill my mother. Then the thought metamorphosed. The gun was not aimed at her but outside, onto the terrace, and for a moment I wondered whether it was directed at me, until I noticed the three puppies sunning on the terracotta titles, eyes still unopened (despite the first shot), and I knew. He meant to kill the puppies.

Kate appeared behind me a few minutes later, falling to the ground far more gracefully than I did, shushing me and clearing a twin viewing screen in the shrubbery.

I put my lips close to her ear. “What’s he doing?”

“He wants to kill the dogs.”


“There are too many strays in Spain.”

“Can’t we take them?”

“It’s too many. They didn’t even want Sally, let alone her pups.”

Mum put her hand on top of Dad’s, pushing the gun down until Dad dropped it to his side. He pointed to the dogs, then at her, throwing his hands in the air, an exaggerated gesture I didn’t expect from him.

“Why’s he angry? Does Mum not want him to kill them?”

We watched as Mum motioned to the area around the dogs and threw her own hands up in the air, then moved to the sink, filled it up as if she were about to wash dishes. She again motioned to the puppies, and, grabbing the gun from Dad, she placed it on the floor against the wall, near the kitchen table, letting it stand guard over our rows of muddy shoes.

“I—I’m not sure.”

Mum came out onto the terrace then, scooped up the three puppies in one handful, took them into the kitchen.

Kate pulled me toward the fence, “Let’s go, wolly,” but we were stuck, and instead, she drew me close to her, burying my head against her chest, her arms a circle around my head. I still heard the splashing of water, and Kate whispered to me the tale of three puppies that magically metamorphosed into a family of fish and swam away together.

We stayed outside for a while, coming back to the house at dusk, entering through the kitchen—the sink empty, the gun gone. Dad was nowhere in sight, but Mum was drinking red wine from a long, thin glass. She looked at us, our tattered dresses, stained with dirt and blood and grass, our muddy shoes.

“Shoes and dresses off. Don’t even think of getting dirt in here.”

My parents divorced later that year, and Kate and I spent even more time traveling—mostly throughout Cornwall but farther afield too, to Manhattan and Brazil and South Africa—the map of the world a game board, the pawns called upon when it was convenient or strategic or deliberate.  And, for the most part, I forgot about the puppies. A faint, raised mark, on my upper left arm was the only reminder.

* * *

The next time I saw that particular gun I was fifteen, and it was December. My father pulled me outside, his fingers sitting just under that scar on my left arm, the Ruger bumping against my side as he dragged the gun and me along, towards the stable.

Buttercup, my 29-year-old Arab gelding, looked at us as we approached. I held my hand out to him, but, with no sugar cubes or even an apple or carrot, he was disinterested.

Dad shoved the gun towards me. “Take it. He’s sick and suffering. And useless.”

I looked at Dad, my palms began to sweat.

“It’ll hurt less than the tumors. Quick and painless—less agony than anything else.”

I wanted to object, but he was so expectant. I searched for my other voice, but Kate had started at Oxford a few months before, and I was alone.

“Come now. Do it. Someone else will clean up the mess.” He took Buttercup’s lead and held it tight and then came to me, roughly pushed me into position, standing tight against my back, his arm alongside mine, his cheek resting on my head, the gun light in my grip, positioned perpendicular to Buttercup’s forehead—close but not touching—in the center of an imaginary X formed by a line from his left ear to right eye, right ear to left eye. I didn’t want to look at Buttercup. I wanted to close my eyes, blink away the situation, but it would have been worse for him had I missed, so I looked into his brown eyes, took aim, and then Dad squeezed my finger against the trigger until I heard the shot.

* * *

A month later my mother shot herself with the same Ruger. I did not know how my father’s gun ended up in her possession, but I knew that it did, parsing together the story through snippets of conversations at her funeral, so that while dirt was thudding on her coffin, all I could think about were the puppies and Buttercup, and I supposed that Mum finally decided someone else could deal with the mess.

At the cemetery, I stood in front of the hole in the ground, not knowing what to say or do. My father was reserved, Kate leaning against him, weeping silently, and I stood next to her, as she tightened her grip on me, her hand weaving itself in and out of the hollow gaps between my fingers. It began to snow and white flakes grazed her eyelashes.

I don’t remember much else about that day, but I remember being alone with Kate for the first time since September. We had spent Christmas batted between Mum and Dad, visiting cousins and relatives and people we had never met but were expected to know. I tried telling her about Buttercup over winter-term but stopped, somehow sensing that my tragedy and I were simply suspended in her mind, waiting to be filed away, and, instead spent most of the half-term finishing coursework and revising, while she cleaned and recleaned her room and then left, only to return to Cornwall a week later.

We walked slowly through the snow, and she said, “They should have told you that Mum was depressed, ill.”


“It doesn’t matter anymore. Let’s go outside. We need to get out of here.”

We walked into the dusk. I wanted to go towards the sea, but I knew Kate couldn’t bear the sound of the waves (for the same reason I hated the howl of the wind) so we walked through the garden, down along the house, as the snow began to turn to rain.

I waited for her to speak, but finally I asked, “What are you looking at?”


I stared into the sky, wishing to see what she saw. “Why’d she do it, Kate?”

“I reckon she thought life wasn’t what she expected.”

She continued walking beside me, pinpricks of water—phantoms of the snow—sprinkling down, the naked trees surrounding us. As Kate took my hand, and I looked at her, needing to explain how much I needed her, missed her. “Maybe I’m having a mid-life crisis.”

“You’re not even sixteen.”

“Maybe I’m going to die young.”

We were silent then, and she was crying, and I wanted to walk away. I only wanted her to hold me like she used to, feeling like I had fallen down the well, plummeting farther and farther away from home, and I needed her to understand, but by the time I found the words, she was already gone, back to Oxford.

* * *

In the weeks that followed, I searched for the Ruger at my father’s, certain it ended up back with him. It seemed important that I found the gun, although I had no intentions of doing anything with it.  After three months, I uncovered it, lying in the lower left-hand drawer of his office desk—innocent as a pencil—buried amongst bank statements and staples. Dad was in Sao Paulo at the time and had mistakenly left the drawer key on top of the desk.  I lifted the gun out of the drawer, expecting it to be heavier, heftier, remembering it to be more unwieldy. I examined the barrel, the grip, the trigger, wondering how mother had felt, the puppies and Buttercup. I wondered: staring into a gun, did everything change?

I took aim, pointing the Ruger first at my father’s desk, then at a blossom I noticed on the floor, dragged in from the garden. It was green, pinkish inside, ripe and ready to burst. It made me angry, its mere appearance promising that soon the scenery would be swallowed in an eruption of growth, of color, but in my mind, the velvety softness was already giving way to a crinkly autumn leaf, and I knew that the fugitive flower would soon be burnished by the summer’s heat and chilled by the winter wind, time forcing Earth into new revolutions.

Everything had changed, but I knew Kate would be home that summer, and I had believed, hoped, that she would make it right, as she always had before, but there was a dark part of my mind that knew everything always did and would change. And, thinking of Mum, of puppies and horses, feeling the Spanish heat on my face, the pulsating throb in my arm, I took aim at the bud and pulled the trigger.

Allison Ivans Coulson is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, and she has studied at Johns Hopkins University and the University of East London. Currently she is pursing an MFA in Creative Writing at Hofstra University while working as a middle school English teacher. Her work has been featured on chicklitshorties.com and The Rusty Nail.

Read Allison Ivans Coulson’s comments on Colleen Fullin’s “Times Ending, Times Beginning.”

Notes from Denis J. Underwood, Online Managing Editor
First pass, the writing drew me in immediately. I very much enjoyed the vibrant descriptions. Some of these brought forth childhood memories of places where I had spent summers, of childhood friends I had passed the time with—fortunately, without being involved with such tragic and stressful events. Subsequent readings revealed themes like metamorphosis that were present throughout the story and really resonated. In the end I found some solace. Finally, the gun is used without fatal consequence. Has the chain finally been broken? There is lingering uneasiness after reading this story.

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