The Longest Ride. Занятие 43

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The bull came out hard, bucking, his rear legs pistoning into the air, his head pitched low to the ground. He half spun toward the left, kicking hard again, then literally jumped, all four legs coming off the ground, before suddenly beginning to spin in the opposite direction.


By then, four seconds had gone by and Sophia heard the crowd go berserk.


“He’s doing it!” one of the announcers shouted.


It was at that instant that Sophia saw Luke jerk forward, his body off balance, just as the bull’s head exploded backward.


The impact was horrific; Luke’s head rocketed in the opposite direction, as if devoid of any muscle at all…


“Oh, my!”


Luke’s body went suddenly limp as he toppled off the bull, his hand still tethered to the wrap.


But the bull appeared psychotic with rage, an animal out of control, and the bucking continued, fierce and unrelenting. Luke bobbed up and down like a rag doll, whipped in every direction. When the bull began to spin again, Luke followed in sickening motion, his feet skimming the ground like a whirligig.


By then the bullfighters and others had jumped into the ring, trying desperately to free Luke’s grip, but the bull just wouldn’t stop. He stopped spinning and charged at the new intruders, swinging his horns wildly, tossing one of the bullfighters aside as if he were weightless.


Another tried and failed to free Luke’s wrist from the wrap; another few seconds passed before a bullfighter was able to jump up and hold on long enough—while running with the bull—to free Luke’s hand.


As soon as it happened, Luke toppled to the dirt and lay on his stomach, his head to the side, unmoving, while the bullfighter scurried away.


“He’s hurt! They gotta get folks in here now!”


And still the bull wouldn’t stop. Instead, as if realizing he was free of his rider but angry that Luke had even attempted to sit astride him in the first place, the bull turned around, oblivious to the others who were trying to distract him.


Lowering his head, he charged Luke, gouging his horns at Luke’s prone figure with murderous intent. Two bullfighters jumped in, slapping and hitting, but the bull would not be denied. Instead, he kept swinging his massive horns at Luke’s inert figure, then suddenly lunged forward atop Luke’s body, where he began to buck again.


No, not buck. Trample. And spin. In speechless terror, Sophia heard the announcer shout:


“Get that bull off him!”


Up and down, the enraged bull brought his hooves down with furious impact, crushing Luke beneath him. Smashing down on his back, his legs, his head.


His head…


Five people circled the bull by then, doing everything they could to stop the rampage, but Big Ugly Critter continued his single-minded attack.


Up and down, crushing Luke over and over… The announcer saying:


“They gotta stop this!”


The bull seemingly possessed…


Until finally—finally!—he moved off of Luke and skittered sideways onto the dirt floor of the arena, still bucking wildly.


The camera followed the bull as he continued to buck away and then zeroed in on Luke’s prone figure, his face bloody and unrecognizable, as others began to attend to him.


But by then, Sophia had covered her face, sobbing in horror and shock.

Chapter 25


By Wednesday, Luke’s headache had abated slightly, but he feared he wouldn’t be well enough to compete in Macon, Georgia, over the coming weekend. After that, the next event was in Florence, South Carolina, and he wondered whether he’d be in better condition by then. From there, the tour moved to Texas, and the last thing he wanted was to head into that stretch of the season with a serious physical handicap.


Beyond that, he was beginning to worry about the expenses. Starting in February, the events required that he fly. It meant extra nights at the motels. Extra meals. Rental cars. In the past, when pursuing his dream, he’d viewed it as the cost of doing business. It still was, but now, with the loan repayment set to triple in six months, he’d found himself scouring the Web for the cheapest flights he could find, most of which had to be booked weeks in advance. As best as he could estimate, his winnings from the first event would cover the cost of travel to the next eight events. Which meant, of course, that not a dime would go toward meeting the upcoming loan payments. It wasn’t about winning to chase a dream anymore. It was about winning regularly because he had to.


Even as the thought entered his mind, however, he could hear Sophia’s words, contradicting him. That it wasn’t about the ranch, or even about his mom. That it was all about the guilt he wanted to avoid.


Was he being selfish? Until she’d said it, he’d never even considered the idea. It wasn’t about him. He’d be fine. It was about his mom, her heritage, her survival at an age at which her options were few. He didn’t want to ride. He was doing it because his mom had risked everything to save him, and he owed her. He couldn’t watch her lose everything because of him.


Otherwise he’d feel guilty. Which made it all about him. Or did it?


He’d called Sophia three times on Sunday night, another three times on Monday. Twice on Tuesday. He’d texted, too, once each day, without receiving a response. He remembered how upset she’d been by Brian’s stalking, which kept him from texting or calling on Wednesday. But by Thursday, he could take the silence no longer. He climbed into his truck and drove to Wake Forest, pulling to a stop in front of the sorority house.


Two identically dressed girls were sitting in the porch rockers, one of them talking on the phone, the other texting. Both glanced up briefly, then did a double take when they saw who was walking toward them. As he knocked, he could hear laughter drifting from inside. A moment later, the door was opened by a pretty brunette with two piercings in each ear.


“I’ll tell Sophia you’re here,” was all she said, moving aside to let him in.


Off to the side, three girls sat on the couch, craning their necks to get a glimpse of him. He guessed they were the same girls he’d heard from outside the door, but now they simply gawked at him, the television blaring in the background as he stood in the foyer, feeling out of place.


It was a couple of minutes before Sophia appeared at the top of the stairs, her arms crossed. She stared down at him, clearly debating what to do. Then, sighing, she approached reluctantly. Noticing everyone’s attention, she said nothing to him; instead, she nodded toward the door. Luke followed her out.


She didn’t stop at the porch but walked down the sidewalk out of sight of those in the house before turning to face him.


“What do you want?” she asked, her expression blank.


“I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry,” Luke said, hands in his pockets. “For not telling you sooner.” “Okay,” she said.


She added nothing, leaving him unsure what to say next. In the silence that followed, she turned away, studying the house across the street.


“I watched the video of your ride,” she said. “On Big Ugly Critter.”


He kicked at a few pebbles lodged in a crack in the sidewalk, afraid to face her. “Like I said, it was pretty bad.”


She shook her head. “It was more than just pretty bad…” She turned to look at him, searching his face for answers. “I knew it was dangerous, but I never thought that it was a matter of life and death. I guess I didn’t really understand how much you risk every time you step into the ring. And that bull and watching what he did to you. It was trying to kill you…”


She swallowed, unable to finish. Luke, too, had watched the video once, six months after his ride. Back when he’d sworn he’d never ride again. Back when he’d felt lucky simply to have survived.


“You should have died, but you didn’t,” Sophia stated. “You were given a second chance. Somehow, it was ordained that you should have the chance to live a normal life. And no matter what you say, I’ll never understand why you’d want to risk that. It doesn’t make sense to me. I told you once that I’d thought about killing myself but that I never really meant it. I knew I’d never go through with it. But you… it’s like you want to do it. And you’ll keep going until you succeed.”


“I don’t want to die,” he insisted.


“Then don’t ride,” she said. “Because if you do, then I can’t be part of your life. I’m not going to be able to pretend you’re not trying to kill yourself. Because I’d feel like I was condoning it somehow. I just can’t do that.”


Luke could feel his throat close up, making it difficult to speak. “Are you saying you don’t want to see me anymore?”


With his question, Sophia thought again about how much the tension had drained her, and she realized there were no tears left. “I love you, Luke. But I can’t be part of this. I can’t spend every minute that I’m with you wondering whether you’ll live through the weekend. And I can’t bear to imagine what it’s going to be like if you don’t.”


“So it’s over?”


“Yes,” she said. “If you continue to ride, it’s over.”


The following day, Luke sat at his kitchen table, truck keys on the table. It was Friday afternoon, and if he left in the next few minutes, he’d reach the motel before midnight. His truck was already loaded with the gear he needed.


His head still ached a little, but the real ache he felt was when he thought about Sophia. He wasn’t looking forward to the drive or to the event; more than anything, he wanted to spend the weekend with Sophia. He wanted an excuse not to go. He wanted to take her horseback riding on the ranch, envelop her in his arms as they sat in front of the fire.


Earlier, he’d seen his mom, but their interaction remained strained. Like Sophia, she didn’t want to talk to him. When work made it necessary to speak to him, her anger was palpable. He could feel the weight of her worries—about him, about the ranch. About the future.


Reaching for the keys, he heaved himself out of the chair and started toward his truck, wondering if he’d be able to drive it back home.

Chapter 26, Part 1


I thought you might be coming.” Linda stood in the doorway of the farmhouse, her expression as weary and anxious as Sophia’s own.


“I didn’t know where else to go,” Sophia said. It was Saturday night, and they both knew that the man they adored would be in the ring tonight, risking his life, perhaps at this very moment.


Linda waved her in and motioned for her to sit at the kitchen table. “Would you like a cup of hot cocoa?” she asked. “I was just about to make myself one.” Sophia nodded, unable to say anything and noticing Linda’s cell phone lying on the table. Linda must have noticed Sophia staring at it.


“He texts me when he’s finished,” Linda said, busying herself at the stove. “He’s always done that. Well, actually, he used to call. He’d tell me how well he did, good or bad, and we’d talk for a while. But now he…” She shook her head. “He just texts to tell me that he’s okay. And I can’t do anything but sit here while I wait for it. Meanwhile, of course, time just slows down. Right now, I feel like I’ve been awake for a week. But even when I hear from him, I won’t be able to sleep. Because I worry that even though he says he’s okay, he’s done something to further damage his brain.” Sophia picked at the table with her fingernail. “He said he was in the ICU after the accident.”


“He was clinically dead when he arrived at the hospital,” Linda said, stirring the heating milk slowly. “Even after they revived him, no one thought he’d survive. The back of his skull was just… shattered. Of course, I didn’t know any of this at the time. I didn’t get there until the following day, and when they brought me in to see him, I didn’t even recognize him. The impact broke his nose and crushed his eye socket and his cheekbone—his face was swollen and just… wrecked. They couldn’t do anything about it because of the other damage. His head was wrapped up and he was bolted down so he couldn’t move at all.” Linda took her time pouring the hot milk into the mugs, then spooned in the cocoa. “He didn’t open his eyes for almost a week, and a few days after that, they had to rush him back into surgery. He ended up spending almost a month in the ICU.”


Sophia accepted a mug from Linda and took a tentative sip. “He said he has a plate.”


“He does,” she said. “A small one. But the doctor said the bones in his skull might never heal completely because some of the pieces just couldn’t be salvaged. He said that it’s like a stained glass window back there, everything barely holding together. I’m sure it’s better now than it was even last summer, and he’s always been a strong rider, but…” She trailed off, unable to finish the thought. Instead, she shook her head.


“After he was released from the ICU and they thought he could handle the trip, he was transported to Duke University Hospital. By then, I felt like we’d put the worst behind us, because I knew he’d survive, maybe even recover fully.” She sighed. “And then the bills started coming in, and I was looking at another three months at Duke, just to allow his body to heal, and all the reconstructive surgery on his face. Then, of course, he needed lots of rehab…”


“He told me about the ranch,” Sophia said softly.


“I know,” she said. “It’s how he justifies what he’s doing.”


“It still doesn’t justify it.”


“No,” Linda said. “It doesn’t.”


“Do you think he’s okay?”


“I don’t know,” she said, tapping the phone. “I never know until he texts.”

About the Author

Диана Семёнычева

Диана Семёнычева