Материалы к занятию
Inside the barn, he went through a quick warm-up to get the blood flowing, then hopped on the bull. While rebuilding the bull, his dad had modified it to make the ride more intense at top speeds and had rigged the control switch so that Luke could hold it in his free hand. Out of habit, he kept his hand clenched in a half fist even when riding live bulls, though to this point no one had ever asked why or probably even noticed.
When he was ready, he started the machine at a low-medium speed, again just enough to loosen up. He then rode once on medium and once on medium-high. In his practice sessions, he rode in sixteen-second increments, exactly double the time he’d need to ride in the arena. His dad had calibrated the machine for these longer rides, saying that it would make the live rides easier by comparison. And maybe it did. But it was twice as hard on the body.
After each ride, he’d take a break to recover, and he took a longer break after every three. Usually, in those moments his mind was blank, but tonight he found himself flashing back to his ride on Big Ugly Critter. He wasn’t sure why the images kept flooding his mind, but he couldn’t stop them, and he felt his nerves jangle when his gaze fell on the mechanical bull. It was time for the real rides, the ones on high speed. His dad had calibrated fifty different rides to occur in a random sequence, so Luke would never know what to expect. Over the years it had served him well, but right now he wished he knew exactly what was coming.
When the muscles in his hand and forearm had recovered, he trudged back to the mechanical bull and climbed up. He rode three times, then three more. And three more after that. Of those nine, he made it to the end of the cycle seven times. Counting the recovery time, he’d been practicing for more than forty-five minutes. He decided then to do three more sets of three and call it a night.
He didn’t make it.
In the second ride of the second set, he felt the ride getting away from him. In that instant, he wasn’t unduly alarmed. He’d been thrown a million times, and unlike the arena, the area surrounding the bull was lined with foam padding. Even while in the air, he hadn’t been afraid, and he shifted, trying to land the way he wanted to in the arena: either on his feet or on all fours.
He managed to land on his feet, and the foam absorbed the impact as it usually did, but for some reason the landing left him off balance and he found himself stumbling, instinctively trying to stay upright instead of simply falling. He took three quick steps as he fell forward, his upper body stretching past the foam flooring, and slammed his forehead against the hard-packed ground.
His brain chimed like a thumbed guitar string; slices of golden light shimmered as he tried to focus. The room began to spin, blotting to darkness and then brightening again. The pain started, sharp at first and then sharper. Fuller. Slowly rounding into agony. It took him a minute to summon the strength to stagger to his feet, holding on to the old tractor to stay upright. Fear raced through his system as he carefully examined the bump on his forehead with his fingers.
It was swollen and tender, but as he felt around, he convinced himself that there was no further damage. He hadn’t cracked anything; he was sure of it. The other parts of his head were fine as far as he could tell. Standing straight, he took a deep breath and started gingerly for the doors.
Outside the door, his stomach abruptly turned and he doubled over. The dizziness came back and he vomited into the dirt. Only once, but it was enough to concern him. He’d vomited after receiving previous concussions, and he figured he had one again. He didn’t need to go to the doctor to know that he would be told not to practice for a week, maybe longer.
Or, more accurately, he would be warned never to ride again.
He was okay, though. It was a close call—too close—but he’d survived. He’d take a few days off regardless of the approaching season, and as he limped back to his house, he tried to put a positive spin on it. He’d been practicing hard, and a break might do him good. When he came back, he’d probably be stronger than ever. But despite his attempts to reassure himself, he couldn’t shake the feeling of dread that dogged his every step. And what was he going to tell Sophia?
Two days later, he still wasn’t sure. He went to visit her at Wake, and as they walked the campus byways in the late hours of the night, Luke kept his hat on to hide the bruising on his forehead. He considered telling her about the accident but was afraid of the questions she would ask and where they would lead. Questions he had no answers to. Finally, when she asked him why he was so quiet, he pleaded exhaustion over the long hours at the ranch— truthfully enough, as his mother had decided to bring the cattle to market in advance of bull-riding season, and they’d spent a couple of grueling days roping and herding the cattle onto trucks.
But by then, he suspected that Sophia knew him well enough to sense that he wasn’t himself. When she showed up at the ranch the following weekend wearing the hat he’d bought her and a thick down jacket, she seemed to be evaluating him as they readied the horses, though she said nothing at the time. Instead, they made the same ride they had on their first day together, through the stands of trees, toward the river. Finally, she turned toward him. “Okay, enough of this,” she announced. “I want to know what’s bothering you. You’ve been… off all week long.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m still a little tired.” The bright sunlight drove knife blades into his skull, aggravating the constant headache he’d had since he’d been thrown.
“I’ve seen you tired before. It’s something else, but I can’t help if I don’t know what it is.”
“I’m just thinking about next weekend. You know, first event of the year and all.”
He nodded. “Pensacola.”
“I’ve heard it’s pretty there. White sand beaches.”
“Probably. Not that I’ll see any of them. I’ll drive back after the event on Saturday.” He thought back to his practice yesterday, his first since the accident. It had gone pretty well—his balance seemed unaffected—but the pounding in his head forced him to quit after forty minutes.
“It’ll be late.”
“This one’s in the afternoon. I should be back around two or so.”
“So… I can see you on Sunday, then?”
He tapped his hand against his thigh. “If you come out here. But I’ll probably be wiped out.”
She squinted at him from under the brim of her hat. “Gee, don’t sound so excited about it.”
“I want to see you. I just don’t want you to feel like you have to come over.”
“Are you going to come to campus instead? Do you want to hang out at the sorority house?”
“Then would you like to meet somewhere else?”
“Dinner with my mom, remember?”
“Then I’ll come here.” She waited for a response, growing frustrated when he said nothing at all. In time, she turned in her saddle to face him. “What’s gotten into you? It’s like you’re mad at me.”
It was the perfect opportunity to tell her everything. He tried to find the words, but he didn’t know how to begin. I’ve been meaning to tell you that I could die if I keep riding.
“I’m not mad at you,” he hedged. “I’m just thinking about the season ahead and what I have to do.”
“Right now?” She sounded doubtful.
“I think about it all the time. And I’ll be thinking about it through the whole season. And just so you know, I’ll be traveling a lot starting next weekend.”
“I know,” she said with unusual sharpness. “You told me.”
“When the tour heads west, I might not even make it home most weeks until late Sunday night.”
“So what you’re saying is that you’re not going to be seeing me as often, and when we are together, you’ll be distracted?”
“Maybe.” He shrugged. “Probably.”
“That’s no fun.”
“What else can I do?”
“How about this? Try not to think about your event next weekend right now. Let’s just try to enjoy ourselves today, okay? Since you’re going to be traveling? Since I’m not going to see you as much? It might be our last full day together for a while.”
He shook his head. “It’s not like that.”
“What’s not like that?”
“I can’t just ignore what’s coming,” he said, his voice rising. “My life isn’t like yours. It’s not about going to classes and hanging out on the quad and gossiping with Marcia. I live in the real world. I have responsibilities.” He heard her gasp but pressed on, growing more righteous with every word. “My job is dangerous. I’m rusty, and I know I should have practiced more this past week. But I have to do well starting next weekend, no matter what, or my mom and I are going to lose everything. So of course I’m going to think about it—and yes, I’m going to be distracted.”
She blinked, taken aback by his tirade. “Wow. Someone’s in a bad mood today.”
“I’m not in a bad mood,” he snapped.
“You could have fooled me.”
“I don’t know what you want me to say.”
For the first time, her expression hardened and he heard her struggling to keep her voice steady. “You could have said that you wanted to see me on Sunday, even if you were tired. You could have said that even though you might be distracted, that I shouldn’t take it personally. You could have apologized and said, ‘You’re right, Sophia. Let’s just enjoy today.’ But instead, you tell me that what you do—in the real world—isn’t like going to college.”
“College isn’t the real world.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” she cried.
“Then why are you so mad that I said it?” he countered.
She tugged the reins, forcing Demon to a halt. “Are you kidding?” she demanded. “Because you’re acting like a jerk! Because you’re implying that you have responsibilities, but I don’t. Can you even hear yourself?”
“I was just trying to answer your question.”
“By insulting me?”
“I wasn’t insulting you.”
“But you still think that what you do is more important than what I do?”
“It is more important.”
“To you and your mom!” she shouted. “Believe it or not, my family is important to me, too! My parents are important! Getting an education is important! And yes, I do have responsibilities. And I feel pressure to be successful, just like you do. I have dreams, too!”
“What? Now you’re ready to be civil? Well, you know what? Don’t bother. Because the reality is that I drove up here to spend time with you, and all you’re doing is trying to pick a fight!”
“I’m not trying to pick a fight,” he mumbled.
But she wasn’t hearing him. “Why are you doing this?” she demanded. “Why are you acting like this? What’s going on with you?”
He didn’t answer. He didn’t know what to say, and Sophia watched him, waiting, before shaking her head in disappointment. With that, she jerked the reins and turned Demon, prodding him into a canter. As she disappeared in the direction of the stables, Luke sat alone amid the trees, wondering why he couldn’t find the courage to tell her the truth.
So you just rode off and left him?” Marcia asked.
“I didn’t know what else to do,” Sophia replied, propping her chin in her hands. Marcia sat beside her as she lay on her bed. “By then, I was so angry, I could barely look at him.”
“Hmmm. I guess I’d be angry, too,” Marcia said, sounding just a bit too sympathetic. “I mean, we both know that art history majors are absolutely critical to the modern functioning of society. If that’s not a serious responsibility, I don’t know what is.”
Sophia scowled at her. “Shut up.”
Marcia ignored the comment. “Especially if they’ve yet to land a job that actually pays anything.”
“Didn’t I just say shut up?”
“I’m just teasing you,” Marcia said, nudging her with her elbow.
“Yeah, well, I’m not in the mood, okay?”
“Oh, hush. I don’t mean anything by it. I’m just happy you’re here. I had already resigned myself to the fact that I’d be alone all day. And most of the night, too.”
“I’m trying to talk to you!”
“I know. I’ve missed our talks. We haven’t had one in ages.” “And we’re not going to have any more if you keep this up. You’re making this a lot harder than you need to.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to listen. I want you to help me figure this out.”
“I am listening,” she said. “I heard everything you said.”
“Well, frankly, I’m just glad you finally had an argument. It’s about time. I’m of the opinion that it’s not a meaningful relationship until you have a real argument. Up until then, it’s just a honeymoon. After all, you don’t know how strong something is until you actually test it.” She winked. “I read that in a fortune cookie once.”
“It’s still true. And it’s good for you. Because once you two get past this, you’ll be stronger as a couple. And the make-up sex is always great.”
Sophia made a face. “Is it always about sex with you?”
“Not always. But with Luke?” She broke into a lascivious grin. “If I were you, I’d be trying to get past this as soon as possible. That is one good-looking man.”
“Stop trying to change the subject. You need to help me figure this out!”
“What do you think I’ve been doing?”
“Trying your best to irritate me?”
Marcia offered an earnest expression. “You know what I think?” she asked. “Based on what you told me? I think he’s nervous about what’s going to happen between you two. He’s going to be traveling most weekends, and before you know it, you’ll have graduated and he thinks you’re not going to stick around. So he’s probably beginning to distance himself.”
Maybe, Sophia thought. There was some truth there, but…
“It’s more than that,” she said. “He’s never been like this before. Something else is going on.”
“Is there anything you haven’t told me?”
He might lose the ranch. But she hadn’t told Marcia that, nor would she. Luke had confided in her, and she wouldn’t violate his trust.
“I know he’s feeling a lot of pressure,” she said instead. “He wants to ride well. He’s nervous.”
“Well, there’s your answer,” Marcia said. “He’s nervous and under pressure, and you kept telling him not to think about it. So he got a little defensive and lashed out because in his mind, you’re indifferent to what he’s going through.” Maybe, Sophia thought.
“Trust me,” Marcia went on. “He’s probably regretting it already. And I’ll bet he’ll be calling you to apologize any minute now.”