Andy saved the biggest present for last. He knew what it was, having peeked in his dad's "secret present hiding place" on more than one occasion. He wanted to savor the satisfaction that so many boys of eleven share of opening the one gift that is sure not to be a disappointment (unlike the numerous articles of clothing from aunts and grandmothers, which are hardly ever the highlight of any young boy's birthday).
"Happy birthday, son," caroled Andy's dad grandly, as he presented the large package to his son with an elaborate bow. The gay wrapping, torn apart clumsily by eager hands, was cast aside as Andy whooped for joy: "Oh, boy! Thanks, Dad. Wow, an air rifle! I knew it!" The last statement slipped out.
"Whoops," muttered the boy, glancing at his father, who grinned indulgently.
"I know you peeked, boy, but that's okay. Do you want me to show you how to load it with this buckshot?"
Andy shook his head delightedly. "Naw, I know how, Dad. It's really simple. Jake showed me how with his rifle the other day."
His father chuckled at his son's eagerness. "All right then, son," he said, his face and tone growing serious. "Let me tell you this: When I was about your age, my father gave me a rifle. He told me always to be careful, of course, but he told me something else that I want you always to keep in mind. He said, AGo out and shoot the moon, Billy. Every time you shoot at it, a new crater will appear on its surface. For the moon is really the only safe target.' My father hated killing, Andy. He never let me forget it, either, just as I am not going to let you forget. This gun is for target practice on cans and moons only. I want you to remember this, Andy."
Andy nodded solemnly. "I'll remember." He dashed out of the house. His father watched him go.
Andy ran, rifle in hand, through the lush forest that surrounded the rented summer cottage. The path he followed was littered with pine needles. His running feet made pleasant little thumping sounds. Every so often he would stop and aim the gun at a pine cone or a tree trunk and pretend to shoot. "Pow, pow, pow," he whispered breathlessly. Once he even aimed at a nearby squirrel, but quickly lowered the gun, remembering his father's warning. The gun felt good in his arms. It felt... right.
Night was settling in by the time Andy reached the lake. The moon was out. It shone fat and round in the sky, like a shiny dime in someone's pants pocket, Andy thought. He thought that he could even make out a face on its surface and decided to shoot the moon, to see if it would blink. He raised the rifle and poised to fire, when his wandering eye caught something: a flicker of white, gliding slowly across the darkened lake. Andy looked hard, and there, illuminated by the moon, floated a glorious swan. Its noble head held high, it paddled gracefully toward shore, leaving little ripples of diamond-splashed water in its wake.
Excited, Andy stared at the bird. By this time the swan had almost reached the shore. Slowly, he raised his gun. He aimed carefully, pretending to shoot the swan in the head. Andy squeezed the trigger. He squeezed it too hard.
The blast vibrated in the air, and even the moon seemed to wobble in the sky. Then Andy realized that it was he who was moving, rocking backward with the powerful kick of the gun. His right shoulder ached.
Then he remembered the swan. Frantic, he glared down at the lake. Surprisingly bright moonlight seemed to blind him. He was unable to see the swan. Maybe it flew away, he thought hopefully.
He darted down to the waterfront, searching. It did not take him long to find the snowy white body, forever still, lying among the rushes. It was just inches away from the shore, the small lake waves lapping noisily nearby. Beautiful even in death, its proud head rested nobly on soft, yielding sand. The upper part of the swan's body was bloody, but the pure, chaste whiteness of its lower half gleamed. The graceful, curving neck was crumpled. Eyes that would never close again glazed over.
Andy let out a cry. He fell to his knees beside the great bird, tears streaking down his dirty cheeks and onto the white mound. Through the blur of tears, he could see the moonlight reflecting off the water. He stood and raised the rifle again. Shots rang out, once, twice, three times. Andy had shot the moon.
He hurled the weapon into the lake and watched as it seemed to float momentarily. After the gun disappeared into the dark waters, Andy walked home.
The buckshot may have fallen well short of its heavenly target, but there lay a new crater in the heart of a boy. n
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.