Gretel walked to the edge of the course and squinted down range, holding her hand above her knockoff, Ferragamo sunglasses to see past the noonday glare. “I can’t even see the target,” she said without turning as a gentle breeze lifted the golden curls from her shoulder. She closed her eyes and delighted in the moment–a rare huff of wind to momentarily cool the blistering heat.
When the air had stilled, she turned to the doctor. “You don’t seriously expect me to hit that every time, do you?”
The doctor smiled and nodded.
She took a deep, rattling breath then released it in a long, slow, noisy sigh. “Every damned time?” she muttered to herself.
Her joints ached and the enthusiasm for her Op was waning, but after staring across the barren field for several seconds, she lowered herself to the ground using the butt of her rifle as a makeshift crutch to aid her. Once on her belly, she propped the long barrel of her Accuracy International on a sandbag.
The L115A3 .338 Lapua Magnum kissed her cheek as she tucked the stock into her shoulder. Even with the adjustable cheek piece, she needed her strap-on rest to align her head with the scope. It was hot there, touching her face, and she waited for her skin to equalize the temperature before settling the rest of the way down. While she waited, she chopped at the center of the sandbag with the knife edge of her hand, creating a narrow trough for the barrel to rest in. Once cool enough to think of anything but her cheek, she swiveled the barrel to the crease in the sandbag. The weapon seemed heavier today than it had when she got it–when was that? It was so hard to remember things these days.
Even the walk to the range had been exhausting. Everything had gotten harder recently. It used to be funny when she fell asleep during a movie, propped up on the sofa and snoring sweetly. “Are you sleeping?” he would ask. She would snap awake. “No. I’m watching. Hush.” His muted sniggering always made it so embarrassing, until she realized how silly it was to pretend to still be awake, then she would join in the laughter. It had been so simple, so sweet then. But now, everything was so goddamed hard.
“You have five minutes to fire five times,” the doctor said over her shoulder.
“That’s not bad,” she whispered to her rifle. “We can do that.”
“And all the shots have to be in the circle.”
She rolled her eyes and whispered, “What circle?” She shook her head and clicked the five round magazine into place, having to tap it twice to seat it properly. The small action left the palm of her hand sore and throbbing. This is not going to be easy, she thought.
Through the glass of her optics, she spotted the tiniest dot of a target down range. “Shit.”
“What was that?” The Doctor asked.
“I said SHIT!”
He chuckled before flipping the switch on the timer, sending the countdown clock into motion. “Range is hot! Timer is on!”
“I wasn’t ready!” Gretel said, turning her head slightly so she wasn’t speaking into her shoulder.
The doctor chuckled again.
“You’re getting far to much amusement out of this,” she muttered as she nestled her chin back in place. She lifted the bolt, pulling it back then charging it forward to chamber her first round. Her training kicked in–the world became a frame and her eyes focused on the tiny white dot far, far down range. In an instant, it felt as if she were only a few feet away from it. She took her breath, then let it out slowly, pressing the trigger near the bottom of her exhale. The bullet exploded from the barrel and rocketed across the barren expanse before punching a neat, pencil sized hole in the paper down range.
“One,” she said, then looked at the clock–twenty seconds had expired. “Piece of cake,” she muttered.
She pulled the bolt back again, sending the empty brass cartridge flying off in her peripheral vision with a satisfying ring, then shoved another round into the chamber. Again, the world seemed to narrow to a micro tunnel, culminating and exposing the paper target so many hundreds of yards away. As her breath reached the bottom again, she began to press the trigger, but a sudden sharp pain in her side distracted her. She eased off the trigger and breathed into the pain. She counted her heartbeats as it dissipated.
“Are you alright?” the doctor asked.
She felt someone lie down next to her. “Don’t listen to him,” came a new voice–her love. “He doesn’t know how it feels, only how the target looks when you’re done.”
She smiled without looking at him. She’d know his presence anywhere, anytime. “Hi baby,” she said.
“Hi sweetie. Go ahead…send it.”
With renewed confidence, she breathed in then let it out slowly. Once again, near the bottom of her breath, she pressed the trigger, sending the .338 magnum round screaming down range. Smack! She could almost feel the pop of the round through the paper.
“On target,” he said.
Gretel smiled and ejected the spent cartridge, slamming a fresh one in. But as she dropped the bolt in place, locking the round in, she noticed a loss of sensation in her hand. She shook it out, trying to get the feeling back in her fingers. After more than a minute, she grabbed the velcro of her shooting glove in her teeth and pulled it off. “My fingers…can you massage them for me?”
He laughed but reached over and kneaded them in his hand. “You had me spend all night doing this to your feet…next time you’ll know better. Fingers, fingers not toes, toes.”
“Shut up,” she said, a broad grin stretching her cheeks. “That’s good.”
“Two minutes!” The doctor called from behind them.
“What?!” She yelled over her shoulder as her eyes flashed to the clock. “Shit,” she muttered.
“It’s okay,” her love/spotter said. “Take this shot, then you’ll have a little less than a minute each for the last two.”
She put her cheek to the stock and let the world close in a tiny round frame over her target. She put her finger to the trigger, and despite the pins and needles in her fingers, she felt the warm caress of the metal. “Ready,” she said.
“Send it,” her lover replied.
At the bottom of her breath she squeezed. But it felt off as soon as she felt the recoil.
“Whoa,” he said. “You kissed the outer ring. Don’t forget to check your wind.”
“I know, I know,” she muttered, ejecting the third empty cartridge.
“One minute!” The doctor yelled.
Gretel’s eyes flashed to the clock. This was getting too tight.
“Breathe, baby,” her lover said. “You’ve got this.”
She huffed a hot breath through her nose and shoved another round into the chamber. Her eyes blurred as she looked down range. The target floated past her cross hairs and back again, like a tiny fuzzy balloon, bouncing in a breeze. She wiped her eye with the back of her hand without moving her chin, then strained to let the zone click into place for her…but it wouldn’t.
“Don’t force it,” her man said. “Let it come.”
She took another deep breath and let it out, slowly, listening to the hiss of air from her nostrils. “Ready,” she said.
“Send it,” he replied.
Near the bottom of her breath, the zone clicked and she pressed the trigger. Smack! The round punched through.
“On target,” he said. Gretel could almost hear the smile in his voice as she pulled the bolt back, ejecting the brass and then shoving her last round in.
“Twenty seconds!” The doctor yelled.
“Shit,” she muttered.
“You’ve got this, baby,” her lover whispered into her ear.
“Ready,” she said as she focused through the blur of her world down range. Her lips pursed and she kissed the hard, plastic cheek rest that kept her from goose necking.
“Send it,” he whispered, almost erotically. It sent a flood of excitement through her.
“Ten–nine–eight–” the doctor called.
Shut up! she thought, but focused on her tiny tunnel world.
She pressed the trigger, launching her projectile. It hissed down range and she felt as if she were riding on its back, willing it into the zone. It buzzed like a giant angry hornet, then THWACK! It ripped through the paper target.
“On target,” her man said, then leaned over and kissed her cheek. “Good job, baby. You nailed it.”
“The range is COLD!” The doctor yelled as Gretel pushed herself to her side. She was exhausted.
As the doctor walked over, her man stood and shouldered her rifle for her. “There was one shot in the margin,” the doctor said. “But everything was within the normal range.”
“Normal?!” Gretel moaned as she tried to sit up. “I’d say that’s phenomenal!”
The doctor smiled thinly and nodded. “Yes. You did very well.”
Gretel rolled her eyes at his lack of enthusiasm. “I thought it was pretty damned fantastic,” she muttered.
The doctor turned to her man. “Next time, it might help if–”
“I’m right here,” she said, standing unsteadily. “Tell me.”
The doctor turned to her, lips pressed tightly in a forced smile. “You simply might not remember the conversation,” he said. “It wasn’t meant as disrespect.”
She shrugged. “What might help?”
“More hydration. Before and after the treatment. Keep the fluids flowing in and out.”
She nodded. “Easy enough.”
Her man shook hands with the doctor. “Thanks doc. See you tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?!” Gretel asked. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
He picked up the spotter scope, her shooting bag and the water bottles, slinging them across his other shoulder by the straps. She smiled at how much he looked like a pack mule with all her equipment hanging off his back.
When they got to the jeep she climbed, tiredly, into the passenger seat and stuck her feet through the window, her ankles nested in the arm of the side mirror. Her eyes closed as he loaded the equipment into the back and then came around. She listened to the birds singing around her in the tree line and the soft hiss of leaves moving in the breeze. “Where to now?” she asked as he got in and started the engine.
“Good,” she said. “I can’t do any more shopping today. We can finish tomorrow.”
She opened her eyes in time to watch a worried crease form on his brow. She smiled and winked at him. “Kidding…I know what we’re doing.”
He tapped her arm with the back of his hand as they bounced down the dirt road toward home. “Silly.”
She smiled as she closed her burning eyes again. “That’s me…silly.”
S.L. Shelton is the author of an Amazon Bestselling Political Thriller/Action Espionage Series, (The Scott Wolfe Series). Follow him here on WordPress, on Twitter @SLSheltonAuthor or Facebook. His wife Diane suffers from an advanced cancer and is in aggressive treatment, consuming time, energy and resources. If you feel the desire to help, you can make a contribution to the GoFundMe that their daughter set up, or buy his books.