Girl Beside Him

by Cris Mazza

      WHAT IF the engine just sputters and cuts out, the blades go dead, an unnatural half second of gliding balloon-like silence, and she realizes ... turns to you, huge eyes lacquered with tears, her sobbing heart beating on the outside, hands reaching ... for you ..., mouth open in one last anguished cry ... calling out to YOU ... but you can't hear it over the-- ... No, the blades have gone dead, you can hear everything ... YOUR NAME, of course, again and again, screeched at you like a falcon's deathcry .... And would you feel this same sick, eager flush? Or worse? Would you be panting with feral pleasure? Lunging to shred the blouse off her body while the chopper drops like a bomb and she's practically retching her guts out of her mouth ... begging YOU to save her?

      WHAT IF it takes even longer, the motor doesn't die immediately -- spits, skips a few beats, runs rough and uneven, ripping itself apart as it struggles to keep the blades turning ... and you're not even there, you're watching her panic from ... from ... from where you're lying now ... face down .... Can your perverted thrill be just as acute? If it all just happens in your head, with your dick in your fist, would this be a viable option? At least she'd be alive tomorrow. Then go on, let go, LET yourself dream .... while you're lying on top of the clear cockpit, under the rotating blades. She's still inside. Her mouth moves. You can't hear what she's saying. Can't tell if you're flying or not. She's not wearing the head-set. She's not holding the controls. It's just her face and white throat you see ... and one shoulder through a ripped blouse. How'd it tear? As you were climbing out, she grabbed, held on to keep you beside her, to spend her last moments in another desperate kiss, and in the struggle, you took a bit of cloth away in your fist ...? Wondering about that small frayed opening, exposing the freckled skin, so vulnerable to harsh environments ... and suddenly realizing: YOU'RE naked. And she must be seeing all of you, pressed up against the clear bubble, and her mouth opening must be her screams. But you hear nothing. How well you know, even a rabbit finds a voice at the moment it hangs between vigorous life and violent death. This sudden silence is the chopper screaming. Maybe you went out there trying to make repairs before it crashes. But instead, a vulgar hard-on smashing itself obscenely against the glass right over her face.

Does it matter if it's the sleeping brain creating the violence that produces the arousal? The brain and penis are inexorably linked, so if one is abnormal, the other can't be healthy. Are you showing clear signs of impending action?

As though they'd trembled themselves into exhaustion, his fingers didn't seem to want to hold the rifle with their usual expert dexterity. At least not for more than 2 or 3 minutes at a time. They kept locking up, cramping, and he would have to release the rifle and kneel, quickly stretching out then closing his hands, staring into his palms as they flashed open and balled into fists again. At 6 it was still over 90 degrees. The sun seemed to be only a quarter of the way down to the western horizon. The 30-year-old scavenged body of a station wagon was about 100 feet west of the chained bait, so, hopefully, the setting sun would back-light the junk heap with a blinding glare thereby hindering the coyote from detecting any movement behind the car, which was where he and Leya and the dog were lying-in-wait. The abandoned car was a few miles down a parallel-rutted dirt path that turned off the road between Rawlins and the airport. He'd laid the trap, another batch of guts from the butcher, at about 4, plenty of time to draw flies and bees, a few scavenging crows and buzzards. But the coyote, whose voices he'd heard earlier driving to and from the chained cache, and whose tracks had been plentiful on the dirt ruts of the overgrown road, had yet to appear.

      "I still don't get this," Leya said, yawning. "We haven't gathered data in ... days." She scratched the dirt with a stick. "Any hope for a break in this heat?"

      "I don't know." He propped the rifle against the car and let his hands hang limp from his wrists, shaking them a little, then letting them hang again.

      "We have a timber wolf in the Kritters show at the zoo. He's like a big puppy. How could you kill a puppy?"

      "Be quiet, okay?"

      "You wouldn't kill her would you?" Leya put her hand on the dog who was stretched out in a line of shade created by the car's bumper.

      Brian stared at Leya, then at the bitch. "What possible comparison ...." His hands throbbed. Because the sun was at their backs, there was no shade for them. His shirt was sopping for the 4th or 5th time that day. If you don't drink enough in this kind of dry heat, you're apt to experience dizziness and headaches, momentary blindness, muscle weakness, disorientation or even hallucination. He shook his head, his ears ringing as though he'd already pulled off a dozen shots. "Never mind. Listen, and then shut up, okay? The ranchers, they get suspicious of wildlife studies, especially protection programs or relocations. Like how they're screaming about wolves being reintroduced around Yellowstone. So we show them we're on their side too. That we understand. We show them that we don't value every single animal's life over their livelihood."

      "Well, that's easy to argue against: despite the ecological reasons to value every single animal's life, to do so is also to value our own livelihood."

      "I said be quiet. Please." He watched Leya run the twig in her hand gently over the dog's ribs. The dog had her eyes closed but was breathing quickly, opening her mouth to pant a few breaths every minute or so, then sighing again but continuing to puff heavily through her nose. "I hope she's in condition for a long day of tracking," he said.

      Leya looked up expectantly. "Are we finally going to go find that sick cougar?"

      "We may have to." He reached for the insulated pack that was sitting on the ground between them.

      "Good. I've been looking forward to doing something." Her eyes were hot and radiant.

      He'd been planning to get a drink from the canteen in the pack, but he suddenly moved several more inches away from her, lying down again and positioning the rifle under the car, creeping forward as far as he could so she was more behind him than beside. He licked his chapped lips and swallowed. A dry wad in his throat felt like a whole egg moving through a snake. "It's not that exciting," he mumbled into his elbow as he looked through the sights.

      "Maybe you'd better fill me in on the procedure."

      "You can just follow and watch."

      "Brian!" She playfully tapped his shoulder. He almost dropped the rifle.

      "Cut it out! I'm tryna get steady here."

      "Old grouch." Her voice was blithe. She hummed airily and tunelessly for a moment, then said, "What's the dog supposed to do? She won't kill the cougar will she?"

      "Oh god," he groaned. "The cougar goes up a tree. As soon as the dog is close enough for there to be any kind of chase, the cougar trees itself."

      "Do you have a gun that shoots tranquilizer?"

      "Rifle. Actually, in this case you're almost right, it's usually a specially modified shotgun. I don't have one. We'll use a jabstick. Okay? Satisfied? Now be quiet."

      "I don't think I'm scaring off anything."

      "You're scaring off me, okay? I'm going to run screaming out into the desert any second now."

      "You're cute when you're annoyed." She touched him again, this time on the small of his back.

      "Shut up!" While he shouted, his finger spasmed and the rifle fired. The bullet pealed through the far side of the car's body, the shot reverberated off the hills to the east.

      "You should learn to handle compliments better," she said quietly when the echo died down. "You're the one who'll be scaring everything off."

      The dog had lifted her head when the rifle went off, but was still half up, her ears pricked. Then she lifted the lower half of her body as well, the hair on her neck raised, a low growl in her throat.

      "What is it?" Leya whispered.

      Brian sat up and turned, swinging the rifle around, looked at the crouched posturing dog; then glanced at Leya, kneeling, bent forward, clenched fists against her stomach. Her eyes stayed on the dog, but Brian heard the rattle behind them. He turned the rest of the way toward the west where the snake was coiling itself, ten yards away. Five or six shots hit the dust around the snake. He kept reloading and firing, his shouted curses lost in the rifle's detonation. Seven, eight shots. The snake writhed and twisted, wounded, not dead. He heard Leya shout something and grab the dog as she started to lunge forward. Ten, twelve shots. The snake lay in two mutilated pieces. He shut his eyes and sat panting.

      "They don't die easy, do they," she breathed.

      "Nothing dies easy, but ... I was missing, dammit. I'm not supposed to miss."

      "Sorry, that was insensitive of me to say something like that." She touched his knee. "Why were you missing?"

      "How should I know." Eyes still shut, his thumb felt the polished brass of the trigger. He wasn't sure if there were any more shells still loaded in the rifle. "I guess it's not true, then, that you can't help but kill a snake on the first shot because the snake strikes out at the bullet and gets hit in the head every time. An old wives tale."

      "More like an old fart's tale" she retorted. "Where would a woman come up with stupidness like that?"

      Eyes open again, he blinked at her through swimming colors. Then got up. "Hold the dog. Don't let her go." A predictable dizzy flash hit him on the first step, so he stopped for a second, face toward the ground, took off his hat and fanned himself.

      "Can I have the rattle?" she asked sweetly.

      He didn't answer until he was standing over the mangled snake. "No, I want it."


      "Maybe ... to remind myself not to miss."

      "Or a funky good-luck charm."

      He touched the dead snake with his toe. "I .... Whatever you say...." Bending too swiftly, bringing the dizziness back, he fumbled to open his pocket knife, hacked off the rattle, then stood to kick the snake into the bushes and cover it with dust. "Flies'll be eating us alive if we stay out here much longer."

      "What were you going to say?"

      "I ... need a drink."

      She handed him the canteen. "It seems a little cooler now."

      "Yeah, maybe 89. Let's be quiet, okay?" He picked up the rifle and took the dog by the collar with his other hand, kneeled once again, coaxing the dog to lie down between himself and Leya. The dog sniffed at his ear. He turned slightly and let her lick his mouth and nose. With one hand he felt the creases on her brow. She looked worried when she looked at him.

      "You really love that dog, don't you?" Leya said softly. He didn't answer. Again tried to swallow the dry egg in his throat. When he didn't respond, she went on, "I mean, it's good to see you can feel that way toward something, but ... maybe, since you have to give her back to that rancher, you subconsciously knew it wasn't a relationship you would have to commit to, so that's why you let yourself go. You know, since you already know how and when and why it will end, the end isn't a threat, so the relationship itself isn't a threat."

      He crushed a spider on his knee with one palm, then ground it into a smear on his skin. "There are many ways to end something." Surprised he'd spoken, and words he'd never have expected. He clenched his jaw, pulled his hat lower, pressed the top of his head against the warm rusted metal.

      "I know your sister's death hurt you, but, hurting you wasn't the reason she did it."

      "You don't ... know ... anything." His voice as unfamiliar as an owl's cry in sunny daylight. He released a heavy breath, his chest tight, his hands still holding the rifle across his knees. Precariously balanced one moment, maybe already in a freefall the next. Wheezing as though beyond winded, fighting to catch a breath, he started naming the parts of his rifle in his mind.


      "Shut up!"

      A breeze rattled a dry leaf against the metal. Leya jumped. Then together Brian and the dog picked up their heads at the distant but approaching yips and yawls. Maybe they've learned the sound of a rifle means something has been killed.

      The half-dozen coyote came up over a ripple of prairie, partially surrounding the bait. In summer coats, they looked in poor condition, patches of thick matted fur still being shed out on their backs and throats, thinning and gaunt around their ribs, hips and loin. One lifted his muzzle to send his string of thin laughing barks into the air. The bitch growled, her fur still bristling. The other coyote joined the vocalizations, and, after the lead male advanced to assault the burlap bag holding the bait -- shaking his head as though breaking his prey's neck -- the others approached, some slinking, others posturing their degree of dominance. The animals handled stings from the meat wasps with mere shakes of the head, refusing to give up a mouthful or piece of hide, and amid the growing noise, the entrails began to be spread over an area about 10 to 20 yards square.

      "They look awful," Leya whispered. "We should be out here giving them a proper diet instead of killing them. I wish they didn't have to eat garbage."

      "Carrion." Brian's answer was monotone, through clenched teeth. "A critical part of the food chain -- as precious as water."

      He lifted the rifle. Lowered it again to load shells. Aimed. Froze. Followed each animal in the sights. Released the trigger mechanism to wipe his sweaty right palm on his shirt. Resumed aiming. Then began squeezing off shots, moving quickly from left to right and back again.

      Because of the echo and the indiscriminate spray of bullets, the coyote ran in circles first, unwilling to completely abandon the cache. One was limping. One, screaming, shook his head and sprayed blood from the stump where his ear used to be. The rife continued resounding, pausing to be reloaded, then cracking again. The bitch was barking, rapidly, rhythmically. Leya was screaming something. She grabbed Brian's shirt and the material ripped as he wrenched away. The animals were scattering, carrying off pieces of intestines and feet.

      WHAT IF she tried even harder to stop the rifle ... tried to stop the bullets? What if she grabbed and clung to your arm like a small monkey, rode your back, could you shake her free? Would she then break from cover to help the targets to escape? To hold herself hostage for their safety, for their innate right to live in their own habitat and follow their own behavior? Could she scream something as involved as that between shots? Maybe while you're reloading? Will you look up and find her out there shielding their wealth of food? Unaware she could soon become part of their supply. What if you DID scatter shots in you sister's bedroom that night -- and, suddenly released, like a mare RETURNING to the burning barn, Diane hadn't run away but remained to once again protect YOU from your natural roguishness ... and took the bullets that were missing their mark ... and sent you into a paralyzing ecstasy while the shot cracked and she simultaneously died ... so would you expect to writhe again in excessive gratification if Leya drops to the bloody dust where they've scattered the coagulating guts ....

      The bullets peppered the dirt between sage bushes and rocks.

      "Brian ... they're all gone."

      A brief touch of his shoulder. The rifle clattered out of his hands. "I can't shoot anymore, can't hit anything, what's wrong with me, it feels like something's choking me!" Then silence and dusk returned. Like a light going off, a thin shadow crept up over their backs. The temperature seemed to drop ten degrees in ten seconds.

      "Maybe you missed on purpose ...?"

      He snatched up the rifle again, turned it over in his hands. "That's idiotic. If you don't have anything intelligent to say, shut the fuck up."

      "I'm going to try to ignore that misplaced hostility."

      "What makes you think it's so misplaced?" He got up, slammed the pack over his shoulder and turned his back. "It's aimed right at you. And at myself. I was wrong to bring you out here. Go back to your goddamn husband."

      With the dog beside his leg, he strode back toward where the truck was parked a little way down the dirt road, but Leya's voice followed him like a whining fly staying close to his ear, "That's just cruel." Then she broke into bona fide weeping. "You're hurting so you have to hurt someone else. I'd never tell you to take a picture of your sister out hunting with you instead of me."

      He stopped, his back still to her. He heard a few more of her footsteps, then she stopped somewhere close behind him. "Well, you just did, didn't you. So now we're even."

      When they turned off the rutted, bumpy dirt track onto a paved 2-lane road, she said "I'm sorry," almost too softly to hear.

      Was it ... could it have been the searing weather and suspected heat stroke ... jumbled your neurological signals, thus the choking sensation ... and .... More evidence of weakening or deteriorating ... shooting no longer stabilizing you. No longer fabricates normalcy .... Some mutant exigent need has overcome the ability of the disciplined precision exercises to hold it off. What is it about her that has set both your voluntary and involuntary functions and responses in such turmoil? Your behavior has gone off the fucking chart. But you're able report it as calmly, as perfunctorily as that cougar who lay nonchalantly gazing over her private canyon, patiently waiting for her body's sickness to fade, unconcerned at the impaired behavioral drive that led her into this trouble in the first place. But, YOU, the sharpshooter ... who have now cupped the two small globes of her white buttocks ... one in each of your big hands ... holding her, drawing her, as though she was supposed to part of YOUR body and you were pulling her back into place ... every sensation keenly separate, distinct ... silken inner thighs brushing against your hips ... dusty citrus scent in her hair ... salty darkness of her wet ear in your mouth ... then her mouth ... sucking your thirsty tongue ... holding your shaggy head in her hands during the desperate bottomless kiss ... yet soft as a life raft ... "easy, easy," her feathery whisper, your breathing had turned to frantic grunting, feverish sweat on your face she stroked away with a petite dry palm ... the delicate pale breast and pointed nipple standing upright between your lips ... all her smallness, softness, delicacy, but nothing weak, you slid forever between the strong, slippery walls that eagerly held and protected you .... Was your sister getting fucked again? Didn't she end up getting shot? But your rifle still in the back seat of the truck, perhaps jolted to the floor when the truck skidded off the road, across the gravel shoulder, zigzagging and boomeranging in a strip of tumbleweeds beside a barbed wire fence ... a last sliver of daylight slicing surgically through your sun-stroked eye into your brain, couldn't find the brake, the truck shooting forward, veering left then right, the wheel meaningless in your disoriented hands ... her disembodied shriek registering nowhere in your baffled senses ... and when the motion stopped, her secure hands pushed you just far enough to one side so she could drive the truck while you leaned in near fevered delirium against her ... led your clumsy stumbling boots into her room, shoved your thick throbbing head under a cool waterfall then led you to the bed and ... didn't she peel your threadbare shirt away and dry the rancid sweat of sunstroke from your body with her sheets ...? Tease the drops of water from your chin and ears with her tongue ...? Wrap her body around yours without fear your searing skin would either flame or liquefy against hers ... ? "Is it tomorrow?" you woke mumbling. "Is it okay? Does anyone know it was me?" The slow breathing behind you broke into a moan then a whisper as she woke. "Feeling better?" You knew that would be impossible, to ever feel any better than your dry flesh against the healthy heat of hers ... but she rolled away from you and came around the bed, fully clothed, to open the heavy curtains and let a mid-morning sun expose the dim shadows of where you lay on top of the rumpled bedspread, also fully clothed, dried stiff with sweat ... except your boots lined up beneath the night stand, socks stuffed into the tops to prevent scorpions from crawling in to lie in wait. "I'll shower first, then you can go, then we'll have to get you something to eat." But you picked up the boots and walked barefoot out to the truck as soon as the bathroom door shut and the spatter of water hit the tile, her body enveloped in steam. Should you be afraid?

Cris Mazza's Girl Beside Him is now available from FC2. More about her work can be found at