Gunshots don’t sound like gunshots. On January 31 of this year, at 3:15 AM, two people were shot dead down the street and around the corner from where my brother, Nick, lives in Toronto's Chinatown. I was nowhere near the flying bullets of that specific witching hour, but later that day, while working in the low January morning light, I received an email from my dad.
2 Shot Dead in China Town. That was the subject line. The body of the email was blank save for a single attached image: a picture of my brother on my father’s one year old TV.
The humour is classic Dad: morbid as fuck.
Without context the image inspired in me an irrational fear. Zero logic and cold sweating anxiety presented two options in my mind. The first, which I ruled out on account of my brother’s exceptional character, was that the screencap implied Nick was the gunman. The second, which should have been discounted by the fact that he’s clearly being interviewed in that image, was that it was all happening again—another member of my precious family of four intercepted a red hot bullet. You see, nine years ago, while on vacation in Costa Rica (in an incident I’ve detailed elsewhere in greater depth), my dad and I were mugged at gunpoint and he was shot in the chest. I helped carry him to safety, and ever since that day part of me has always been convinced it will happen again. It’s a symptom of PTSD, a disability I’ve learned to live with.
I phoned Nick immediately.
He was quick to answer my call and it caught me off guard. His nonchalance caused me to rein in my panic, which instantly seemed like a half remembered nightmare. Of course he was safe. I took deep breaths away from the receiver, rotating my glass phone against my ear so Nick couldn’t hear the remnants of my concern. Describing the email I suddenly got the joke. It was funny from the time my dad clicked send on his laptop. Disregard the fact that the man who sent the image once stained my soft blue sneakers with gunshot-induced blood and it’s an absurd image of a friendly face juxtaposed with a terrifying headline.
I paced—bare feet on the old yellow hardwood of my apartment floor.
So, I asked, what happened?
He affirmed it. Nick was on the news because he was the only person on his street who heard the commotion and was willing to give interviews. The shots woke him up.
It was crazy, he told me. It didn’t sound like you’d expect. It’s not like on TV.
Yeah, I agreed. No one tells you this, but guns sound different in real life. They don’t bang so much as they pop. At least in my experience. Like children trying to break a pebble between two bigger rocks, guns crack. They snap like toys loaded with caps. The best comparison I’ve encountered is a firework. That’s the sound that scares me most. The surprise explosion just before darkness on a holiday weekend makes me feel the warm blood seeping through the green hoodie I was staunching my dad’s punctured side with as we staggered to safety. My hand get's sticky with memory.
Most often, television shows and movies use a bigger sound. It’s a much more violent, speaker-consuming crash. Whether it’s to protect sensitive ears like mine, or because real gunfire would seem anti-climatic in today’s violent action operas, I can’t tell, but thanks to the discrepancy I can watch prime-time TV and hollywood blockbusters without having a nervous breakdown. Tarantino doesn't use the sound I remember, so when Marvin loses his head in the backseat of Jules' car in Pulp Fiction, I can laugh along with everybody else instead of having to curl up in a ball and shiver in a puddle of tears.
Abstract connections—a certain sound or the strange juxtaposition of a family member’s face and the text “shooting”—sneak into my life when my guard is down and activate my fight or flight response. Fireworks are the worst of these. Alone in my home, I feel the weight of my father and the humidity of Costa Rica. The common sounds of communal celebration become an environmental hazard. A sky lit up by bottle rockets, roman candles, and whiz bangs is a sonic hurricane that spirits me to a moment I’ve been obsessed with for nearing a decade. Bang. Cheer. Pop. Oh god. Oh god the blood.