Take Your Shot | Briana Wipf
The rims after the Fourth of July started to fade from lush green to dull silvery brown, having run out of the winter and spring water stores and now parched by the dryness of summer. Alan liked to whip around corners of the gravel road built on the edge of the rims without braking, regardless of how fast he was driving his truck, a silver 1999 Dodge Ram. As he did so, Maddie reached for the oh-shit handle above the window and watched the concave arc of the rims come into view as Alan steered the truck around the curve.
“Big baby!” he laughed. He always said something when she grabbed the handle or sped up.
They were shooting gophers today. It was July seventh, a bit late in the season, but they had come upon a few coteries and done well, taking turns shooting out of the Dodge’s windows with Alan’s twenty-two, which spit shell casings out onto the dash with taut pops, setting them up for their roll toward the windshield.
The rims north of town are visual evidence of the Two Medicine Formation, which runs east of the Rocky Mountain Front and formed during the Cretaceous period.
That’s what Mr. Fredrickson, Maddie’s earth science teacher, taught them sophomore year. He only called on the pretty girls who tanned and wore eyeliner. Maddie hadn’t been one of them.
Gopher shooting was probably the one thing Alan never criticized Maddie about. Everything else – her family, her hair, her boobs, her job, her love of watching Frasier reruns, her clothes – he picked at. Her family was oilfield trash, her hair was too long and stringy, her boobs were too small, her job was boring, Frasier was boring, and her clothes looked like they came from Goodwill (sometimes they did).
As if Alan would know anything; he had had the same buzzed haircut since high school, ten years ago. He occasionally bought expensive tequila that he drank out of those orange plastic cups with rounded rims that he got after his grandma died. In fact, most of his furniture came out of his dead grandma’s house, and she had last decorated around 1981.
Alan worked at the bulk fuel plant in town. He had lasted a semester in college in Havre but passed only one class because he didn’t show up for his finals. Then he drifted around, did some custom cutting, and got thrown in jail in Oklahoma after a bar fight. He still couldn’t go into Canada because of that. Not that he’d take Maddie to Lethbridge for a weekend anyway; he didn’t invite Maddie anywhere. He bought her dinner once two years ago.
“We can go look at the Harrisons’,” Alan said, his voice elevated slightly so he could be heard over the rattling of the truck. “Joe and me were up there a couple weeks ago and just murdered them.”
Joe was Alan’s cousin who would visit every few months. When they were together, Maddie couldn’t even get a text message back. Sometimes, they went to Billings for long weekends, and Maddie knew he was cheating on her down there.
“You two have quite the bromance,” Maddie had said once.
Alan immediately bristled. “I ain’t no fag.”
That’s usually how he was. He voted for Obama, he said just so he could say the n-word and be able to argue he wasn’t racist (Maddie had never actually heard him say the word; he even said “n-word” when explaining himself). This time around he was planning on voting for Romney, reasoning he had given the “black community” enough of a chance to run things.
Maddie was three years younger than Alan. She hadn’t given him any thought when they were in school, and it wasn’t until she had moved back home after finishing a paralegal program that she got to know him. They were both playing in a Monday-night pool league that winter. The first time their teams played against each other, they flirted, and Alan got Final Jeopardy, playing on one of the screens in the bar. Alan could be funny and he was smart in a hard-knock way. And goddamn was the sex ever good.
Maddie hadn’t planned on coming back home; she’d hoped to major in history or English and then go to law school, but when her dad went on disability after he hurt his back, the family couldn’t help her with tuition anymore. So she moved home and tried to save money and figure out what to do next. She lived with her grandma, who had dementia and couldn’t live alone.
That was four years ago. Maddie had assumed Grandma Barb would soon need care that Maddie couldn’t give her, and she’d have to go to the nursing home. But Grandma Barb’s decline plateaued, and she had become so docile that she could be left in the house during the day. She just continually checked the mail. Twice a day – when she found a newspaper in the morning and a packet of political mailers and sweepstakes entries in the afternoon – she hit her jackpot.
The road on the Harrisons’ place was a two-track easement used by farmers and oilfield producers. The truck bounced over ruts a foot deep. Someone had bajaed their way down the road the last time it rained, molding the crusted dirt into little mountain ranges.
“Jesus,” Alan said as they bucked over the road. Maddie held tight to the oh-shit handle.
Finally, they came to a stop. A pumpjack and tank battery stood about 200 feet away, but other than that, the hilltop where they parked was nothing but last fall’s cut grain, short and spiky like Alan’s hair.
“I gotta pee, and no faggy music while I’m gone,” he said, referring to “Another One Bites the Dust,” which was playing low on the radio. He punctuated the statement by turning off the ignition with a flourish.
“Whatever,” Maddie said as she rolled down the window: you couldn’t leave a vehicle running this time of year for fear of starting a fire, and the truck’s A/C didn’t work anymore, anyway. She sighed, annoyed at herself for not calling Alan out on his comment, but she was so tired of it. She was tired of everything.
The Great Plains are the nation’s breadbasket, its fertile soil providing wheat and corn to a growing nation.
Or at least that’s what had stuck with Maddie from fifth-grade social studies class. She reached for the Skittles she had bought earlier, along with a pack of condoms, at the gas station. The checker was a guy she had gone to school with; he used to sit next to her in that fifth-grade class and flip his top eyelids inside out when he got bored. Today, he had embarrassedly asked her if she wanted a bag, but she declined and stuffed the Skittles and condoms in her purse. Alan wouldn’t buy condoms. He would wear them, reluctantly.
Alan opened the driver’s door but got interrupted by a text message. He took his phone out of his pocket, flipped up the screen, and used his square thumb to tap the number pad. Alan refused to get a smartphone out of paranoia about privacy or something. He didn’t even have Facebook.
“You want to go for a walk?” he asked after finishing his text and returning his phone to his pocket. He grabbed the gun and propped up against the middle seat.
Maddie opened the door and slid out of the truck, but she just wanted to go home. She knew how this afternoon would wind up, anyway. They’d shoot some more gophers, fool around in the back of the truck, and Alan would take her back to town and drop her off at her grandma’s house. Then she wouldn’t hear from him for a day or so until he texted her asking for photos.
At first, Maddie didn’t mind. It was exciting, and no one else had ever asked for anything like that, certainly not in college, where she made plenty of friends and dated a few guys, but nothing that lasted longer than a month. And it was nice to be wanted. But after a while, she got tired of Alan’s growing demands. If she said no, sometimes he’d give her the silent treatment for days. So she’d snap a pic and get it over with.
“You see that?” Alan said, stopping and pointing to a mound with about six gophers crawling around it. He raised the scope to his eye and took a shot. The bullet sent up a puff of dust about fifteen feet from his target, and the gophers disappeared.
“Did you do something to this scope?”
“No,” Maddie said. “You just suck today.”
He repeated her in a high, sing-song voice, “You just suck today.”
Maddie almost hated him. She wanted out; she’d wanted out for a year. But there was no one else, not around here. And those photos.
Alan took three more shots before he hit a gopher in the head, sending the animal’s body into death convulsions.
“Can I?” Maddie said as he reloaded, reaching toward the gun.
“No, you’ll talk shit if you do,” he said, clearly offended by her earlier comment.
Maddie rolled her eyes and sat on a sandstone jutting out of the grass. She checked her phone but only had two bars and no text messages. Alan took a few shots, growing more and more frustrated.
“It’s shooting to the right,” he said at one point.
Maddie mouthed “Whatever,” but he wasn’t looking at her.
“If you’re going to pout, I’ll just take your ass home,” he said.
“Fine, I’m getting hungry anyway.”
“Well don’t have a huge burger like you did yesterday,” he said. “I don’t like fat asses.”
Maddie got up and started toward the truck. “I’ll eat what I want.”
She got into the truck but left the door open so some air could circulate. Alan followed a couple minutes later, jumping into the driver’s seat without turning her way. He wore oblong sporty sunglasses that wrapped around the side of his head, so Maddie couldn’t tell if he was glancing at her from behind the dark lenses.
Alan started the truck and put it into gear. “Good thing I got them pictures for later since you’re being a brat.”
Maddie knew what that meant. It wasn’t just that he’d use them now that they wouldn’t be hooking up today. He brought them up whenever he was annoyed.
They drove down the easement without talking, and when they got to the smoother county road, he hit the gas, driving far faster than Maddie was comfortable with. She started to reach for the oh-shit handle but stopped herself, afraid it might make him drive faster. She glanced at the speedometer and saw he was driving over 50. The tires kicked up gravel that popped against the bottom of the truck. The road now angled downhill and started curving along the rim. As they whipped around the curve, Maddie became aware that Alan wasn’t braking.
“Alan!” she shouted, glancing out the window at the hill, about a forty-foot drop before the land leveled out.
But Alan didn’t respond; the truck had left the road and dropped downward. He swore as the truck started rolling. His body hit Maddie’s hard, pushing her toward the door, but her seatbelt had locked up already. And then as the truck kept rolling, Maddie was aware of Alan’s body dropping to the ceiling of the cab before being thrown back to the driver’s seat. Another full revolution, repeating the pattern, throwing Alan’s body like a pinball before the truck came to a rest, right-side up.
Maddie sat, dazed. Her right arm ached like it had been punched, but other than that, she couldn’t feel any pain. Her stomach felt twisted, and she thought for a moment she would vomit. She was aware of the roof of the truck crunched down near the top of her head. The intact windshield was a network of webs and cracks, impossible to see out of.
“Alan?” she said. He was lying on the middle seat, bent sideways at the waist.
He didn’t respond.
“Alan? Are you ok?” Maddie asked, yelling now.
She put her hand on the side of his head, aware suddenly that his face was bloody and his nose likely smashed. She found a pulse on his neck.
“Okay,” she said to herself and reached across Alan’s body to take the key out of the ignition. She forced the door open and pulled her phone out of her pocket. No bars. Alan had a different carrier, so she dug around in the front seat to find his phone. He didn’t have any bars either.
“Okay,” she repeated. “Okay, okay.”
She would need to run up the hill and hope for coverage. She took a few steps upward, then stopped. Alan’s phone was still in her hand.
She turned back to the truck and opened the toolbox installed in the bed under the rear window. It wasn’t locked; it hardly ever was, but there usually wasn’t much in there, just a few screwdrivers and a monkey wrench. She took the wrench, opened the scratched tailgate, and put the phone on it.
“Alan?” she called, but there was no answer.
Maddie swung the wrench as hard as she could, slamming it down on the phone, shattering its screen. She hit it again. And again, over and over. She started screaming, swearing at the top of her lungs. The phone resisted the beating at first, but after a few more swings, the shattered screen went dark, splitting in two at the hinge. She kept swinging; she didn’t notice her aching right arm or the metallic banging on the tailgate.
At last, Maddie stopped. The phone was in two pieces.
“Alan?” she called. Nothing.
She ran up to the truck and checked on him again. There was still a pulse. He must have hit his head hard enough to knock him out. Maddie ran back to the phone and wondered for the first time how to explain its demolition. But she didn’t have to. She spotted a pumpjack and tank battery about a quarter mile away and took off running toward it, running as fast as she could over the rough, dry prairie.
This area of Montana weathered the Great Depression better than many others, its economy buoyed by the recent discovery of oil.
Maddie had written a paper about the local oil industry in a history class in college.
At the tank battery, she climbed the grated steel steps to the thief hatch at the top of the tank, opened it, and dropped the two pieces of phone in the brown, fetid crude oil inside.
That was it. Maddie’s chest felt light. She exhaled.
She returned to the truck, her ponytail sticking to her neck and her t-shirt wet with sweat.
Maddie ran up the hill, picking her way past rocks and gopher holes, keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes, and reached the road, sweating and out of breath. She dialed 911 on her phone. It rang twice.
“Hello? I’m out on Rim Road. We’ve been in an accident. We need an ambulance.”
About the Author:
Briana Wipf is at work on her doctoral degree and studies medieval literature and digital humanities. Before going to graduate school, she worked in Montana as a journalist. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Blood Pudding, Montana Mouthful, Change Seven, Drunk Monkeys, and others. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pa., with her husband, Jesse, and their dog, Roger Daltrey.