He sat up straighter. "I made the PBR World Championships four years in a row. To do that, you have to be in the top thirty-five in the standings."
"So you're one of the best, in other words."
"I was. Not so much anymore. I'm pretty much starting over again."
By then, they'd reached a small clearing near the river and they brought the horses to a halt on the high bank. The river wasn't wide, but Sophia had the sense that the slow-moving water was deeper than it appeared. Dragonflies flitted over the surface, breaking the stillness, causing tiny ripples that radiated to the edge. Dog lay down, panting from his exertions, his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth. Beyond him, in the shade of a gnarled oak tree, she noticed what seemed to be the remains of an old camp, with a decaying picnic table and an abandoned fire pit.
"What is this place?" she asked, adjusting her hat.
"My dad and I used to come fishing here. There's a submerged tree under the water just over there, and it's a great place to catch bass. We used to stay out here all day. It was kind of our place, just for the two of us. My mom hates the smell of fish, so we'd catch them and clean and cook them out here before bringing them back to the farmhouse. Other times, my dad would bring me out here after practice and we'd just stare at the stars. He never graduated from high school, but he could name every constellation in the sky. I had some of the best times of my life out here."
She stroked Demon's mane. "You miss him."
"All the time," he said. "Coming out here helps me remember him the right way. The way he should be remembered."
She could hear the loss in his tone, sense the tightness in his posture. "How did he die?" she asked, her voice soft.
"We were coming home from an event in Greenville, South Carolina. It was late and he was tired and a deer suddenly tried to dart across the highway. He didn't have time to even jerk the wheel, and the deer went through the windshield. The truck ended up rolling three times, but even before then, it was too late. The impact broke his neck."
"You were with him?"
"I dragged him out of the wreckage," he said. "I can remember holding him and frantically trying to get him to wake up until the paramedics got there."
She paled. "I can't even imagine something like that."
"Neither could I," he said. "One minute, we're talking about my rides, and the next minute, he was gone. It didn't seem real. It still doesn't. Because he wasn't just my dad. He was my coach and partner and friend, too. And..." He trailed off, lost in thought, then slowly shook his head. "And I don't know why I'm telling you all this."
"It's okay," she said, her voice soft. "I'm glad you did."
He acknowledged her words with a grateful nod. "What are your parents like?" he asked.
"They're... passionate," she finally said. "About everything."
"What do you mean?"
"You'd have to live with us to understand. They can be crazy about each other one minute and screaming at each other in the next, they have deep opinions on everything from politics to the environment to how many cookies we should have after dinner, even what language to speak that day --"
"Language?" he asked, breaking in.
"My parents wanted all of us to be multilingual, so on Mondays we spoke French, Tuesdays was Slovak, Wednesdays was Czech. It used to drive me and my sisters crazy, especially when we had friends come over, because they couldn't understand anything that anyone was saying. And they were perfectionists when it came to grades. We had to study in the kitchen, and my mom would quiz us before every test. And let me tell you, if I ever brought home a score that wasn't absolutely perfect, my mom and dad acted like it was the end of the world. My mom would wring her hands and my dad would tell me how disappointed he was and I'd end up feeling so guilty that I'd study again for a test that I'd already taken. I know it's because they never wanted me to struggle like they did, but it could be a little oppressive at times. On top of that, all of us had to work in the deli, which meant that we were pretty much always together... let's just say that by the time college rolled around, I was looking forward to making my own decisions."
Luke lifted an eyebrow. "And you chose Brian."
"Now you sound like my parents," she said. "They didn't like Brian from the beginning. As nuts as they are about some things, they're actually pretty smart. I should have listened to them."
"We all make mistakes," he said. "How many languages do you speak?"
"Four," she answered, pushing up the brim of her hat in the same way he did. "But that includes English."
"I speak one, including English."
She smiled, liking his comment, liking him. "I don't know how much good it will do me. Unless I end up working at a museum in Europe."
"Do you want to do that?"
"Maybe. I don't know. Right now, I'd be willing to work anywhere."
He was quiet when she finished, absorbing what she'd said to him. "Listening to you makes me wish I had been more serious about school. I wasn't a bad student, but I wasn't brilliant, either. I didn't work very hard at it. But now, I can't help thinking that I should have gone to college."
"I'd think it's a lot safer than riding bulls."
Though she meant it as a joke, he didn't smile. "You're absolutely right."
After leaving the clearing by the river, Luke took her on a leisurely tour of the rest of the ranch, their conversation wandering from one subject to the next, Dog always roaming in their vicinity. They rode between the Christmas trees and skirted past the beehives, and he led her through the rolling pastureland used by the cattle. They talked about everything from the kind of music they liked to their favorite movies to Sophia's impressions of North Carolina. She told him about her sisters and what it was like to grow up in a city, and also about life on the cloistered campus at Wake. Though their worlds were entirely different, she was surprised to discover that he seemed to find her world just as fascinating as she found his.
Later, when she had gained a bit more confidence in the saddle, she brought Demon to a trot and eventually to a canter. Luke rode beside her the whole time, ready to grab her if she was about to fall, telling her when she was leaning too far forward or back and reminding her to keep the reins loose. She hated trotting, but when the horse cantered, she found it easier to adjust to the steady, rolling rhythm. They rode from one fence to the next and back again, four or five times, moving a little faster with every lap. Feeling a little more sure of herself, Sophia tapped Demon and urged him to go even faster. Luke was caught unawares and it took a few seconds for him to catch up, and as they raced beside each other, she reveled in the feel of the wind in her face, the experience terrifying and exhilarating. On the way back, she urged Demon to go even faster, and when they finally brought the horses to a halt a few minutes later, she started to laugh, the surge of adrenaline and fear spilling out of her.
When the giddy waves of laughter eventually passed, they slowly made their way back to the stables. The horses were still breathing hard and sweating, and after Luke removed the saddles, she helped him brush them down. She fed Demon an apple, already feeling the first twinges of soreness in her legs but not caring in the slightest. She'd ridden a horse - actually ridden! - and in a burst of pride and satisfaction, she looped her arm through Luke's as they strolled back to the house.
They walked leisurely, neither of them needing to talk. Sophia replayed the events of the day in her head, glad that she'd come. From what she could tell, Luke shared her sense of peace and contentment as well.
As they neared the house, Dog darted ahead toward the water bowl on the porch; he lapped at it between pants, then collapsed onto his belly.
"He's tired," she said, startled at the sound of her own voice.
"He'll be fine. He follows me when I ride out every morning." He took off his hat and wiped the perspiration from his brow. "Would you like something to drink?" he asked. "I don't know about you, but I could really use a beer."
"I'll be b
ack in a minute," he promised, and headed into the house.
As he walked away, she studied him, trying to make sense of her undeniable attraction to him. Who could make sense of any of this? She was still trying to figure it out when he emerged with a pair of ice cold bottles.
He twisted off a cap and handed her a bottle, their fingers brushing slightly. He motioned to the rockers.
She took a seat and leaned back with a sigh, her hat tilting forward. She'd almost forgotten that she'd been wearing it. She took it off, setting it in her lap before taking a sip. The beer was icy and refreshing.
"You rode really well," he said.
"You mean I rode well for a beginner. I'm not ready for the rodeo yet, but it was fun."
"You have naturally good balance," he observed.
But Sophia wasn't listening. Instead she was staring past him at the little cow that had appeared from around the corner of his house. It seemed to be taking an inordinate interest in them. "I think one of your cows got loose." She pointed. "A little one."
He followed her gaze, his expression turning to fond recognition. "That's Mudbath. I don't know how she does it, but she ends up here a couple of times a week. There's got to be a gap in the fencing somewhere, but I haven't found it yet."
"She likes you."
"She adores me," he said. "Last March, we had a wet, cold streak and she got trapped in the mud. I spent hours trying to pull her out and I had to bottle-feed her for a few days. Ever since then, she's been coming around here regularly."
"That's sweet," she said, trying not to stare at him but finding it hard to avoid. "You have an interesting life here."
He took off his hat and combed his fingers through his hair before taking another sip. When he spoke, his voice lost some of the customary reserve she'd grown used to. "Can I tell you something?" A long moment passed before he continued. "And I don't want you to take this the wrong way."
"What is it?"
"You make it seem a lot more interesting than it really is."
"What are you talking about?"
He began to pick at the label on his bottle, peeling the paper back with his thumb, and she had the impression that he wasn't so much searching for the answer as waiting for it to come to him before he turned to face her. "I think you're just about the most interesting girl I've ever met."
She wanted to say something, anything, but she felt as if she were drowning in those blue eyes, her words seeming to dry up. Instead, she watched as he leaned toward her, hesitating for an instant. His head tilted slightly, and the next thing she knew, she was tilting her head, too, their faces growing closer.
It wasn't long, it wasn't heated, but as soon as their lips came together, she knew with sudden certainty that nothing had ever felt so easy and so right, the perfect ending to an unimaginably perfect afternoon.
here am I?
I wonder this for only a moment before I shift in the seat, pain providing me with an answer. It is a waterfall, white hot, as my arm and shoulder explode. My head feels like splintered glass, and my chest has begun to throb as if something heavy has just been lifted off me.
Overnight, the car has become an igloo. The snow on the windshield has begun to glow, which means that sunrise has come. It is Sunday morning, February 6, 2011, and according to the watch face that I have to squint to make out, it is 7:20 a.m. Last night, sunset occurred at 5:50 p.m., and I'd been driving in the darkness for an hour before I went off the highway. I have been here for over twelve hours, and though I am still alive, there is a moment when I feel nothing but terror.
I have felt this kind of terror before. Strangers would not know this by looking at me. As I worked at the shop, customers were often surprised to learn that I had been in the war. I never mentioned it; and only once did I talk to Ruth about what happened to me. We never spoke of it again. Back then, Greensboro was not the city it would eventually become - in many ways, it was still a small town, and many of the people I'd known growing up were aware that I'd been wounded while fighting in Europe. And yet they, like me, had little desire to discuss the war after it ended. For some, the memories were simply too unbearable; for others, the future simply held more interest than the past.
But if anyone had asked, I would have said that my story was not worth the time it would take to listen to it. If nonetheless pressed for details, I would have told them that I'd enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in June 1942, and after being sworn in, I boarded a train filled with other cadets bound for the Army Air Corps Reception Center in Santa Ana, California. It was my first trip out west. I spent the next month learning how to follow orders, clean bathrooms, and march properly. From there, I was sent to Primary Flight School at Mira Loma Flight Academy in Oxnard, where I learned the basics of meteorology, navigation, aerodynamics, and mechanics. During this time, I also worked with an instructor and was gradually taught to fly. I flew my first solo there, and within three months I had accumulated enough hours in the air to move to the next stage of training at Gardner Field in Taft. From there, it was off to Roswell, New Mexico, for even more flight training and then back to Santa Ana, where I finally began my formal training as a navigator. Yet even when I completed the training there, I still wasn't done. I was sent to Mather Field near Sacramento, where I attended Advanced Navigation School, to learn how to navigate by the stars, with dead reckoning, through the use of visual references on the ground. Only then did I receive my commission.
It was another two months before I was sent to the European theater. First, the crew was sent to Texas, where we were assigned to the B-17, and then finally to England. By the time I flew my first combat mission in October 1943, I'd been training stateside for almost a year and a half, as far from action as someone in the military could possibly be.
This is not what people would have wanted to hear, but this was my experience of the war. It was training and transfers and even more training. It was about weekend passes and my first visit to a California beach, where I laid eyes on the Pacific for the very first time. It was having the chance to see the giant sequoias in northern California, trees so large they seemed beyond comprehension. It was about the feeling of awe that overcame me when soaring over the desert landscape as dawn was breaking. And it was also, of course, about Joe Torrey, the best friend I ever had.
We had little in common. He was a Catholic from Chicago, a baseball player with a gap-toothed smile. He had trouble stringing a single sentence together without cursing, but he laughed a lot and poked fun at himself, and everyone wanted him along when weekend passes were handed out. They wanted him to join their poker games and to cruise downtown with them, since women also seemed to find him irresistible. Why he often chose to spend time with me has always been a mystery, but it was because of Joe that I ever felt included at all. It was with Joe that I drank my first beer while sitting on the Santa Monica Pier, and it was with Joe that I smoked the first and only cigarette of my life. It was Joe that I spoke with on those days I particularly missed Ruth, and Joe would listen in a way that made me want to keep talking until I finally began to feel better. Joe, too, had a fiancee back home - a pretty girl named Marla - and he admitted that he didn't particularly care what happened in the war as long as he was able to get back to her.
Joe and I ended up on the same B-17. The captain was Colonel Bud Ramsey, a genuine hero and a genius as a pilot. He'd already flown one round of combat missions and had been assigned a second. He was calm and collected under the most harrowing circumstances, and we knew we were lucky to have him as our commander.
My actual war experiences began on October 2, when we raided a submarine base in Emden. Two days later, we were part of a squadron of three hundred bombers converging on Frankfurt. On October 10, we bombed a railway junction at Munster, and on October 14, on a day that became known as Black Thursday, the war came to an end for me.
The target was a ball-bearing plant in Schweinfurt. It had been bomb
ed once a few months earlier, but the Germans were making good headway in repairs. Because of the distance from base, our formation bombers had no fighter support, and this time the bombing run was anticipated. German fighters showed up at the coastline, dogging various squadrons all the way, and by the time we were within striking range, flak bursts had already formed a dense fog over the entire city. German rockets exploded all around us at high altitude, the shock waves shaking the plane. We had just dropped our payload when a number of enemy fighters suddenly closed in. They came from every direction, and all around us, bombers began to fall from the sky, enveloped in fire as they spiraled toward the earth. Within minutes, the formation was in tatters. Our gunner was struck in the forehead and fell back into the aircraft. On instinct, I climbed into his seat and began to fire, loosing close to five hundred rounds without doing any appreciable damage to the enemy. At that moment, I did not think that I would survive, but I was too terrified to stop firing.
We were strafed by enemy fire on one side and then the other. From my vantage point, I could see gigantic holes being ripped into the wing. When we lost an engine to enemy fire, the plane began to shimmy, the roar louder than anything I'd ever heard before as Bud struggled with the controls. The wing suddenly dipped, and the plane started to lose altitude, smoke billowing behind us. The fighters closed in for the kill, and more flak tore through the fuselage. We dropped a thousand feet, then two thousand. Five thousand. Eight thousand. Bud somehow managed to straighten the wings and, like a mythological creature, the nose of the plane somehow began to rise. Miraculously, the plane was still aloft, but we were separated from the formation, alone above enemy territory - and still the flak pursued us.