“I’ve got a surprise for you.” Will reached behind the seats in the cab of his truck.
Movies and television had led me to believe that surprises from male suitors usually involve some form of precious metal and possibly a sparkler, so I was totally taken aback when he pulled out an enormous, four foot long rifle.
“Am I in trouble?” I asked, disappointed about the disparity between my life and romantic fiction.
“I told you I was gonna show you how to use one of these, didn’t I?”
“Well, yeah, but I thought you were talking about like a handgun or something, not a bazooka.” The rifle was intimidating, a smooth stretch of black with flashes of reflected light from the metal and glass on the more complicated working parts.
“If you hear someone around here talking about guns, they’re talking about one of these.” Will said, smiling at me with an air of mockery. “Those little cap guns y’all have in the city don’t work for hunting.”
Even though I knew he was having fun at my expense, it was too much not to play along. “I’ll have to remember that the next time a deer breaks into my house in the middle of the night. Of course, I’ll have to get a bigger nightstand to keep it in.”
He didn’t find it as funny as I hoped he would, but he was still mildly amused. “That’s right, you’re from a place where you have to keep your doors locked.”
I frowned, a little too noticeably. There were too many conflicts between Will and the city.
“What’s wrong?” He asked, spotting the change in my expression.
“I just wish you could see it sometime.” I couldn’t picture him anywhere near Salt Lake City, but I’d learned enough to know that anything was possible.
“See what, a deer in a ski mask going through your underwear drawer?”
“Oh, ha ha. So are we going to shoot this thing or what?”
“Yeah. Come on.” He took a small rectangular box out of his truck before shutting the door. “We’re running out of daylight.”
I trotted after him, each of his steps was equivalent to two of mine and he was moving quickly. The grass was lush, the blades wide and the most vivid shade of green. I had slipped on a pair of thinly strapped flip flops when I left the house, and my toes were cool and wet with the dew that had already condensed in miniscule beads over every surface on the farm. There were small white wisps in the grass in a few places, which I discovered were spider webs as we passed close by. I was immediately aware of the bare skin on my ankles and calves, exposed to whatever creatures were lounging in the yard and had been disturbed by us rushing through.
I had to remind myself to be tough. After all, I was about to be shooting a really big gun. The mental image of me holding the rifle almost made me laugh.
We passed by the shed, where Aunt Carol’s canna lilies were blooming with blood red speckled tangerine flowers tipping their tall stalks. The plants that volunteered themselves around the lilies had flourished into thick bushes that flowed down in a solid carpet to the grass below. In the silvery light and balmy climate, the plush vegetation seemed like a tropical rainforest. The rising hum of the insect choir only added to the ambiance.
Will slowed when we came to where the ground began to slope sharply downward toward the creek bed. We were beside the entrance to the cow pasture, lined with ancient log fence posts and strands of barbed wire. The song of the crickets and frogs was louder there, chirping from thickets the lawnmower couldn’t reach.
“This’ll work.” He said, looking over the immense cascade of dark green that spilled from the trees down the steep banks of the creek. It formed a dense, leafy wall at the edge of the field across from us.
“What is that stuff?” I asked him, studying the wild vines that were swallowing up the trunks of the trees and drowning them in a sea of wide lobed leaves and hungry tendrils. “It’s everywhere.”
“The vine that ate the south.” He said, leaning the rifle up against a fence post and opening the little box. Inside was a row of gleaming brass tubes. Bullets.
“No, seriously. What is it?”
Will laughed at me. “I’m not kidding, that’s what people call it. It’s really a kudzu vine though. Farmers hate it because it grows on everything and spreads faster than they can kill it.”
“It’s creepy. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
“Well, that’s gonna be your target. Aim for the other side of the creek.” He handed me the gun. “First you’ve got to load it.”
“Wait, why am I aiming at all of that? I can’t tell what I’m shooting in there.”
Will laughed at me. Again. “Don’t worry about aim yet. Just see how it feels to fire it first.”
I was disappointed. The lesson wasn’t going to be as exciting as I’d thought it would be. “Alright, fine. Where do I stick this thing?”
Will pointed to a dull metal ball at the end of a short lever above the trigger. “See this?” He asked, pointing. “This is the bolt handle. You’ve got to flip this safety first,” He snapped a little black switch at the end of the silver bolt, “then lift the handle and pull it back.”
I flipped up the little ball and pulled it back toward me. The sound was tantalizing, an articulate, calculated set of clicks that were perfectly succinct as the metal parts locked into their places.
“Now you’ve opened the magazine.” He handed me one of the long, pointed bullets. “Load this in there.” He said, showing me just where to insert the deadly piece of metal. “OK, now lift the handle again and push the bolt forward this time.”
The intricate clicking was just as titillating the second time, a dangerous sound that made me feel brave and virulent.
“You’re holding a loaded rifle now, so be careful.” Will stepped partially behind me, positioned at my side. “Put this part,” he patted the wide end of the gun, “the butt, into your shoulder. No, higher. Good. Now put this hand here, under the forestock, and your other hand up here on the trigger.” He positioned my arms, lifting up my elbows so that I had the gun level with my shoulders.
I felt like a sniper.
“Put your cheek right up against the gun and look into the scope. What do you see?”
The scope looked like a very thin telescope perched on top of the rifle. The lens was a good four inches from my eye and all I could see was a purple glow, so I moved my face closer. The purple became blue, a duochrome effect like oil in water. Transposed on the surface of the glass over the rainbow was my reflection, a birds’ eye view of my squinting gaze staring back at me.
“I see myself.” I said, feeling stupid.
“You’re too close. You’re gonna knock yourself out. Slide back a little.” Will was sporting a playful grin, having way too much fun with the experience. “Tell me when you see something.”
I moved my face back millimeter by millimeter until a small circle began to open in the center of the purple mirage. There were magnified green fronds behind faint crosshairs.
“OK, I see something now.” I moved the gun very slightly, trying to focus on something specific in the wall of vines. “All I see is that damn vine.” I said, irritated. “How do I know where I’m shooting?”
Will chuckled. “It doesn’t matter as long as you’re facing that way and you’re looking at leaves through the scope.” He paused. “Are you ready?” His voice sounded more concerned than it should have.
“What am I doing wrong?” I sighed, not budging from my frozen pose with one eye open and my elbows raised at the level he’d put them.
“You might want to spread your feet out a little and bend your knees.”
My stomach jumped. “Oh no, this is going to hurt, isn’t it?” I asked.
He loved it. “Just pull the trigger fast like you’re ripping off a band aid.” He said, taking several large steps away from me.
I tried to move the index finger that was resting on the trigger, but the knuckle wouldn’t bend any farther.
“You’re not chickening out, are you?”
That was enough of a challenge for me. My finger finally responded to the signal from my brain and pulled the trigger.
My shoulder was shoved violently backward as the gun recoiled. The bang of the rifle firing ripped through the air, echoing off the distant mountains and ringing in my ears, officially the loudest sound I’d ever heard.
I lowered my arms, still holding the gun with both hands. My heart was thundering in my chest, the blood racing through my body at the speed of light. Everything sounded fuzzy, like there was cotton packed into my ears.
“That was awesome!” I gasped, looking at Will with wildly sparkling eyes and a wide smile that seemed to stretch without my control. “Can I do it again?”
Will looked impressed and a little bit shocked. “Sure, but first you’ve gotta eject the shell.”
“Oh cool, like in the movies! How do I make it pop out?” I inspected the gun around the place I’d inserted the cartridge.
Drawing closer, he reached out and touched the gun to show me what to do, but didn’t take it from me. “It’s the exact opposite of loading. Flip up the bolt handle, pull it back.” He moved his hands over mine as we brought back the bolt together, and the gleaming brass shell casing was forcefully bounced out of the magazine with a satisfying metallic clink.
Will took a few of the pointed bullets from the box and snapped them into the rifle. “Push it back up and lock the bolt handle.” His arms wrapped around from behind, easily reaching along the length of my own to completely shelter me as we lifted the gun back up into position. “Ready to try again?” He asked, whispering.
My body was still electric with the rush from the rifle blast, and the warmth of his encompassing embrace sparked into an arc between us. There was crushing pressure in my chest, a grip that made it hard to breathe and it was all I could do to focus on something other than the sizzle between his cheek and mine.
“Ready?” He whispered again.
“Hang on, I’m trying.” I still hadn’t willed my eyes open yet.
Will’s lips delicately brushed my jaw, the tip of his nose tickling the hollow below my ear with a feathery touch before he kissed the length of my neck to the back of my shoulder.
“You’re making this really difficult.” I said, wishing he wouldn’t stop.
“I know.” He lifted his mouth so that his words were a slight breath beside my ear. “It’s fun.”
Just as I was ready to drop the gun and turn around to violate him, his teasing let up and his guidance was firm again. His right arm shadowed mine, bent at the elbow with his hand cupping my hand on the trigger.
“Ready now?” His words had his voice behind them to give them weight, even though they were still hushed.
“Ready.” I squeezed the trigger again, and the power of the explosion inside the rifle thrust me back against Will’s chest as another deafening blast reverberated through the countryside.
His voice was a whisper in my ear again. “Eject the shell.”
I slid back the bolt to flip out the empty cartridge again and pushed it back in place, relishing the fabulously meticulous clicks made by the metal.
Even though I couldn’t see his face, his familiar smile was recognizable in his voice. “I never would’ve thought you’d be so into this.”
“Me either.” I answered him absentmindedly, as I searched through the scope, looking for something recognizable that I could aim for. Scanning over the rabid vines, I finally found an exposed area on the trunk of a gargantuan old tree on the other side of the creek.
“What are you doing?” Will had felt me scanning the creek bed with the rifle.
I focused on keeping still, balancing the heavy gun so that the crosshairs were fixed on the rough bark of the tree. “I’m finding a target.”
He coughed from over my shoulder and I felt determination surge as though he’d just double-dared me. Holding my breath, I tightened my hold and braced for impact.
The gun bucked up, rearing into my shoulder and throwing echoes over the surrounding hills. My ears were ringing as I kept my cheekbone firmly pressed against the rifle to search for the tree through the scope. The recoil had knocked my view a few inches out of place, but I managed to find the trunk again. It looked completely untouched.
“How far will this thing shoot?”
His smirk was a little too handsome to be insulting. “Much farther than across the creek if that’s what you’re asking. Did you miss?”