She had imagined adrenaline, the rush of squaring her shoulders, of shouting, Freeze! She had imagined tableaus: of thunder, of the Virginia mud, of trees, quivering in anticipation for the stories they would tell, for the extracted projectiles, the bodily fluid soaked up by their roots. She had even imagined herself dying once: one of those fraught claustrophobic deaths where the pain comes mostly from breathing.
But this: this was isolated.
They had trekked across a field on nothing more than a hunch, something having jarred at her, though there was nothing stranger across the way than a pile of firewood, an axe still lodged in a chopping block. It was midday, the sun cutting down like pain, only known for the heat of its healing process. She had realized too late that her cell had no reception, that the body had no way of sending for help: if she burned like a forest fire; if her junk DNA unhinged and in breaking up, like a radioactive element, left behind a distinct trace, a measurable half-life, in the worst case, or a traceable signature in the best; if she had the will to scream far and wide when her partner went down first, then maybe her flesh could have found a way to call somebody to her side in time.
As it were, she flinched, drawing every particle of herself in and jamming it up, under her ribs, in the split-second when her eyes closed, wishing the moment away.
The first bullet grazed her, and the second caught her in the knee as it unbuckled; once on the ground, she held the wound as tightly as she could. She could not feel her leg below the knee, and the more pressure she applied, the less it hurt. The terror that had torn through her when her partner fell to the ground shattered into a dozen fragments after tearing through her kneecap. She could feel her body reintegrate the elements, the metal of it. She felt stronger now that she knew where she was. She had the whole sky above her, and all the ground below, and these stores were so vast that she need not be more resourceful than that.
She liked to think that she was capable of a great many things. In training at Quantico she had stunned her partner by sliding through his legs, then punching out his knee, disabling him for the first time in their sparring history simply because she knew mats were slippery– in any given field situation, this move would have compromised her position. On her first case, she had killed a man without thinking that she would pull the trigger until after it happened and still she slept as soundly as ever. Whatever needed to be done, she could do, but what was there to accomplish, as she lay in the shadow of firewood?
She might stay alive, she thought, when she heard a foot fall not at all self-consciously on a piece of wood, big enough it seemed to be a castoff from the pile or a downed branch. The field bled directly into a thicket, and from there she did not know: there had been hints that their serial killer might be hiding there, in the rural quiet, but nothing certain, nothing as hard as his boot, his gun. He would have been surprised by her appearance; he would not be expecting her to rally.
Very slowly, so as not to alarm her attacker, she slipped her gun from its holster. He was, at present, around the corner, his weight displacing the air over the firewood: she could feel what a rush it was to be turning the corner on a blaze, his body emitting excitement. She had trained to know this, this moment exactly: when to aim without hope, just the cold calculated metal held so unsteadily. She was holding herself up by a death grip on her wound, her torso at concave angles, her gun pointed where he might appear, if he was the right height, the right weight. She managed to catch him in the shoulder, the bullet jerking him back until he stood, chest flush so that, if they were both standing, she would be able to press her hand flat and feel his heart skip in surprise; he did not stop coming for her, though. He was raising his gun as at a mirage holding back its water even as she shot him twice, square in the chest.
She was shocked by how unfamiliar his face looked right as he hit the ground, the way it became long and scared. She thought, maybe he was not the one they were searching for– maybe they were all just unlucky today, and she as much a horror as he. She holstered her gun. If he had accomplices; if someone was attracted by the gunshots or by the fact that she was a raw creature, with fears cast for miles, she could not defend herself, anyway. There was a hole in her suit, near her shoulder, where the first bullet grazed her. She used this hole as a breaking point. From there, she tore the garment into strips and used these to wrap the bullet wound. She tried willing herself free of her body. She had lost too much blood to hold any illusions about her ability to get out of that field, but she still tried to drag herself off, sitting up, each inch a leaving behind. She saw the firewood, his body beneath the pile; she could hear animals begin to circle. Men, she thought.
Ruth Joffre attends Cornell University, where she won the 2010 Arthur Lynn Andrews Prize. Her fiction has placed third in the Glimmer Train Fiction Open and been published online in Moon Milk Review. She has a poem forthcoming in Drunken Boat. She plans to begin an MFA program this fall.