Материалы к занятию
Luke was off again. Not like last weekend, but something definitely wasn’t right with him. And it wasn’t just exhaustion, either. He was pale, his skin tone almost white, and though he’d denied it, she knew that he was in a lot more pain than usual. Sometimes, when he’d made a quick, unexpected movement, she’d noticed he’d wince or draw a sharp breath.
Dinner with his mom had been a stilted affair. Though Linda was happy to see her, Luke had stayed outside by the grill while she and Linda chatted the whole time, almost as if he were trying to avoid them. At the table, the conversation had been notable for all the subjects they studiously avoided. Luke didn’t talk about his obvious pain, his mom asked nothing about the rodeo, and Sophia refused to mention Marcia or Brian or how awful the week had been at the house. And it had been awful, one of the worst weeks ever.
As soon as they returned to Luke’s, he made straight for the bedroom. She heard him tap out some pills from one bottle, then another, then followed him as he walked to the kitchen, where he swallowed what she guessed was a handful of pills with a glass of water.
To her alarm, he leaned forward, resting both hands on the edge of the counter, his head hung low.
“How bad is it?” she whispered, her hands on his back. “Your headache, I mean?”
He drew a couple of long breaths before answering. “I’m okay,” he said.
“Obviously, you’re not,” she said. “How much did you take?”
“A couple of each,” he admitted.
“But I saw you take some before dinner—”
“It wasn’t enough, obviously.”
“If it’s that bad, you should have gone to the doctor.”
“There’s no reason,” he said in a dull voice. “I already know what’s wrong.”
“I have a concussion.”
She blinked. “How? Did you hit your head when you jumped off the bull?”
“No,” he said. “I landed wrong in practice a couple of weeks ago.”
“A couple of weeks ago?”
“Yeah,” he admitted. “And I made the mistake of practicing again too soon.”
“You mean your head’s been hurting for two weeks?” Sophia tried to keep the rising panic out of her voice.
“Not like this. Riding yesterday aggravated it again.”
“Why would you ride, then, if you have what sounds like a concussion?”
He kept his focus on the floor. “I didn’t have a choice.”
“Of course you had a choice. And that was a stupid thing to do. C’mon. Let’s bring you to the emergency room—”
“No,” he said.
“Why not?” she said, bewildered. “I’ll drive. You need to see a doctor.”
“I’ve had headaches like this before and I know what a doctor’s going to tell me. He’s going to tell me to take some time off, and I can’t do that.”
“You mean you’re going to ride again next weekend?”
“I have to.”
Sophia tried and failed to understand what he was saying. “Is that why your mom has been so mad at you? Because you’re acting like an idiot?”
He didn’t answer right away. Instead, he sighed. “She doesn’t even know about it.”
“You didn’t tell her? Why wouldn’t you tell her?”
“Because I don’t want her to know. She’d just end up worrying.”
She shook her head. “I just don’t understand why you would continue to ride, when you know it’s going to make your concussion worse. It’s dangerous.”
“I’m past worrying about it,” he said.
“What do you mean by that?”
Luke slowly pushed himself upright and turned to face her with an expression of resignation, something akin to an apology.
“Because,” he finally said, “even before the concussion, I was never supposed to ride again.”
She wasn’t sure she’d heard him right, and she blinked.
“You’re not supposed to ride at all? Ever?”
“According to the doctors, I’m taking a massive risk every single time.”
“Big Ugly Critter,” he said. “I didn’t just get knocked out and dragged around. I told you he trampled me, but I didn’t tell you that he fractured my skull, back near the brain stem. There’s a small metal plate there now, but if I land wrong, it’s not going to be enough to protect me.”
As he spoke in a monotone, Sophia felt a chill spread through her body at his words. He couldn’t be serious…
“Are you saying that you could die?” She didn’t wait for an answer, feeling panic flood her system as she registered the truth. “That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it? That you’ll die? And you didn’t tell me about this? How could you not tell me?”
It all clicked into place, the pieces fitting together: why he’d wanted to see the bull on their first night together; why his mom was so angry with him; his tense preoccupation before the start of the season.
“Well, that’s it, then,” she went on, trying to suppress the terror in her voice. “You’re not riding anymore, okay? You’re done. As of now, you’re retired again.”
Again he said nothing, but she could see in his face that she wasn’t getting through. She moved in and encircled him with her arms, squeezing in desperation. She could feel his heart beating, could feel the strong muscles in his chest. “I don’t want you to do this. You can’t do this, okay? Please tell me that you’re finished with all this. We’ll figure some other way to save the ranch, okay?”
“There is no other way.”
“There’s always another way—”
“No,” he said, “there isn’t.”
“Luke, I know the ranch is important, but it’s not more important than your life. You know that, right?
You’ll start over. You’ll get another ranch. Or you’ll work on a ranch—”
“I don’t need the ranch,” he broke in. “I’m doing this for my mom.”
She pushed away from him, feeling a swell of anger. “But she doesn’t want you to do this either! Because she knows it’s wrong — she knows how stupid it is! Because you’re her son!”
“I’m doing it for her—”
“No, you’re not!” Sophia interrupted. “You’re doing it so that you won’t have to feel guilty! You think you’re being noble, but you’re really being selfish! This is the most selfish thing—” She broke off, her chest heaving.
“Don’t touch me!” she cried. “You’re going to hurt me, too! Don’t you get that? Did you ever stop for one minute to think that I might not want you to die? Or how it would make me feel? No, because it’s not about me! Or your mom! This is all about you— and how you’ll feel!”
She took a step backward. “And to think you lied about it…,” she whispered
“I didn’t lie…”
“A lie of omission,” she said, her voice bitter. “You lied because you knew I wouldn’t agree with you! That I might walk away from someone who was willing to do something so… wrong. And why? Because you wanted to sleep with me? Because you wanted to have a good time?”
“No…” Luke’s protest sounded weak to her ears.
She could feel hot tears spilling down her cheeks, beyond her control. “I… just can’t handle this right now. Not this, too. It was a terrible week, all the girls talking and Marcia avoiding me… I needed you this week. I needed someone to talk to. But I understood that you needed to ride. I accepted it because it was your job. But now? Knowing that the only reason you were gone was because you were off trying to kill yourself?”
The words came out in a rush, almost as fast as her mind was racing, and she turned, reaching over and grabbing her purse. She couldn’t be here. Not with him. Not now… “I can’t take this…”
“Don’t talk to me!” she said. “I don’t want to hear you try to explain why it’s so important for you to die—”
“I’m not going to die.”
“Yes, you are! I may not have been around long enough to know, but your mom has! And the doctors have! And you know what you’re doing is wrong…” Her breaths were coming fast. “When you come to your senses, then we can talk. But until then…”
She didn’t finish. Instead, flinging her purse over her shoulder, she stormed out of the house and ran to her car. After throwing it in gear, she almost backed into the porch as she turned it around and hit the accelerator hard, barely able to see through the blur of her tears.
Sophia was numb.
Luke had called twice since she returned to the sorority house, but she didn’t answer. She sat in the room, alone, knowing that Marcia was with Brian but somehow missing her nonetheless. Since their argument, Marcia had spent every night at Brian’s, but Sophia suspected it had less to do with Brian than the fact that Marcia felt too ashamed to face her.
She was still angry with Marcia—what she’d done was pretty crappy, and Sophia couldn’t simply pretend it didn’t bother her. A best friend didn’t start dating an ex. Call it a cardinal rule or whatever, but friends just didn’t do that to each other. Ever. But even though part of Sophia thought she should have told Marcia that their friendship was over, she hadn’t been able to say the words, because in her heart she knew that Marcia hadn’t done it on purpose. She hadn’t schemed or plotted or purposely tried to hurt her. Marcia just wasn’t wired that way, and Sophia knew firsthand how charming Brian could be when he put his mind to it. Which, she suspected, he probably had. Because Brian was wired that way. Brian had known exactly what he was doing, and she had no doubt that dating Marcia was his way of trying to get back at her. He wanted to hurt her one last time by destroying her relationship with Marcia.
And then, no doubt, he’d hurt Marcia, too. Marcia would end up learning the hard way what kind of guy Brian actually was. After that, she’d feel even worse than she was probably feeling right now. In a way, it would serve her right, and yet…
But now, Sophia wanted to talk to Marcia. Right now, she really needed her. To talk about Luke. And just to talk, period. Like her sisters were doing downstairs and in the hallway. She could hear the sound of their voices drifting through the door.
She didn’t want to be anywhere near them, though, because even if they said nothing, their expressions were plenty eloquent. Lately, every time she entered the house, the rooms and hallways would go quiet, and she could intuit exactly what each of them was thinking and wondering. How do you think she feels? I hear that she and Marcia never see each other anymore. I feel bad for her. I can’t imagine what she’s going through.
She couldn’t face that right now, and despite everything, she found herself wishing that Marcia were there.
Because right now, she was sure she’d never felt more alone.
The hours passed. Outside, the sky slowly filled with wintry clouds, backlit by the silver glow of the moon. As Sophia lay on her bed, she remembered the evenings on which she and Luke had watched the sky. She remembered the horseback rides and making love, the dinners with his mom. She recalled in vivid detail how they’d sat in lawn chairs in the bed of his truck on the first night they met.
Why would he risk dying? As much as she tried, she couldn’t understand it. She knew it was more about his guilt than anything else, but was it worth risking his life? She didn’t think so, and she knew his mother didn’t. But he seemed intent on sacrificing himself anyway. That’s what she couldn’t grasp, and when he called a third time, she still couldn’t bring herself to answer.
It was getting late and the house had slowly but surely begun to quiet. Sophia was exhausted, yet she knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep. As she tried to make sense of Luke’s self-destructive path, she found herself wondering exactly what had happened on the night he’d first encountered Big Ugly Critter. He’d told her about the plate in his head, but she had the sense now that it had been even worse than that. Slowly, she crawled out of bed, making for the laptop on her desk. With equal parts foreboding and the urge to finally know everything, she typed his name into the search engine.
She wasn’t surprised that there were quite a few listings, including a short bio on Wikipedia. He had, after all, been one of the top-ranked riders in the world. But she wasn’t interested in a biography. Instead, she added the words Big Ugly Critter after his name and pressed the search button.
Instantly, a link to a video on YouTube appeared at the top of the screen. Before she lost her nerve, she pressed the button, watching anxiously as the YouTube screen came up.
The video was just shy of two minutes, and she saw with a sickening feeling that it had been viewed by over half a million people. She wasn’t sure she wanted to watch, but she hit play nonetheless. As soon as it began, it took only a second to recognize Luke in the chute on top of the bull, the camera angled on him from somewhere above, obviously for the television audience. The stands were filled to capacity, and behind the chute there were signs and banners lining the arena wall. Unlike the McLeansville venue, this arena was indoors, which meant it was probably used for everything from basketball games to concerts. Luke wore jeans and a long-sleeved red shirt under a protective vest, along with his hat. The number 16 was embroidered on his vest.
She watched Luke adjust the wrap while other cowboys tried to tighten the rope beneath the bull. He pounded on his fist, then squeezed his legs, adjusting his position again. The announcers talked over the action in heavy twangs.
“Luke Collins has finished third overall in the PBR world standings and is considered one of the best riders in the world, but this is a bull he’s never ridden before.”
“Not many people have, Clint. Big Ugly Critter has only been ridden twice, and he was the PBR World Champion Bucking Bull last year. He’s strong and mean and if Luke can stay on, he’s just about assured of getting a score in the nineties…”
“He’s getting ready…”
By then, Luke had grown strangely still, but the pause lasted only an instant. She watched the gate swing open and heard the roar of the crowd.