The house was silent when I finally came in. Tempted by the thought of Ruth, I tiptoed down the stairs. There was a room on either side of the hallway, but because the doors were closed, I did not know which was Ruth's. I stood waiting, looking from one to the other, then finally turned around and went back the way I'd come.
Once in my room, I undressed and crawled into bed. Moonlight streamed through the windows, turning the room silver. I could hear the rolling sound of the waves, soothing in its monotony, and after a few minutes, I felt myself drifting off.
Sometime later, and though I thought at first that I was imagining it, I heard the door open. I had always been a light sleeper - even more so since the war - and though only shadows were visible at first, I knew it was Ruth. Disoriented, I sat up in the bed as she stepped into the room, closing the door quietly behind her. She was wearing a robe, and as she approached the bed, she undid the knot in a single fluid motion and the robe slipped to the floor.
A moment later, she was in the bed. As she slid toward me, her skin seemed to radiate a crackling electricity. Our mouths came together and I felt her tongue push against my own as my fingers traced through her hair and down her back. We knew enough not to make a sound, the silence making everything even more exciting, and I rolled her onto her back. I kissed her cheek and trailed feverish kisses across and down her neck and then back to her mouth, lost in her beauty and in the moment.
We made love, then made love again an hour later. In between, I spooned her against my body, whispering into her ear how much I loved her and that there would never be another. Through it all, Ruth said little, but in her eyes and her touch I felt the echo of my words. Just before dawn, she kissed me tenderly and slipped back into her robe. As she opened the door, she turned to face me.
"I love you, too, Ira," she whispered. And with that, she was gone.
I lay in bed awake until the sky began to lighten, reliving the hours we'd just spent together. I wondered whether Ruth was sleeping or whether she, too, was lying awake. I wondered whether she was thinking of me. Through the window, I watched the sun rise as if being heaved from the ocean, and in all my life, I have never witnessed a more spectacular dawn. I did not leave my room when I heard low voices in the kitchen, her parents trying not to wake me. Finally I heard Ruth come into the kitchen, and still I waited for a little while before putting on my clothes and opening the door.
Ruth's mother stood at the counter, pouring a cup of coffee, while Ruth and her father were at the table. Ruth's mother turned to me with a smile.
I did my best not to look at Ruth, but from the corner of my eye, I thought I saw the tiniest of smiles flash across her lips.
"Like a dream," I answered.
t Knoxville's arena, where Luke had last ridden six years ago, the bleachers were already nearly full. Luke was in the chute, experiencing the familiar rush of adrenaline, the world suddenly compressed. Only vaguely could he hear the announcer laying out the highs and lows of his career, even when the crowd grew silent.
Luke didn't feel ready. His hands had trembled earlier, and he could feel the fear bubbling up, making it hard to concentrate. Beneath him, a bull named Crosshairs thrashed and reared, forcing him to focus on the immediate. The rope beneath the bull was held taut by other cowboys, and Luke adjusted his wrap. It was the same suicide wrap he'd used for as long as he'd been riding, the one he'd used on Big Ugly Critter. As he finished adjusting the wrap, Crosshairs wedged his leg against the rails, leaning hard. The cowboys who'd helped tighten the rope pushed back against the bull. Crosshairs shifted and Luke quickly jammed his leg into position. He oriented himself, and as soon as he was ready, he said simply, "Let's go."
The chute gate swung open and the bull lunged forward with a savage buck, his head plunging down, hind legs reaching for the sky. Luke worked on staying centered, his arm held out as Crosshairs began to spin to the left. Luke cut with him, anticipating the move, and the bull bucked again before suddenly shifting direction. That move Luke didn't anticipate and he went off center, his balance shifting slightly, but even then he stayed on. His forearms strained as he tried to right himself, holding on with everything he had. Crosshairs bucked once more and began to spin again just as the buzzer sounded. Luke reached for the wrap, freeing himself in the same instant he leapt from the bull. He landed on all fours and got quickly to his feet, heading toward the arena fence without turning around. When he reached the top, Crosshairs was already on his way out of the arena. Luke took a seat on the rails, waiting for his score as the adrenaline slowly drained from his system. The crowd roared when it was announced that he'd scored an 81 - not good enough for the top four, but good enough to keep him in contention.
Yet even after he'd recovered, he spent a few minutes unsure whether he'd be able to ride again, the fear coming back hard. The next bull sensed his tension, and in the second round, he was tossed only halfway into the ride. While in the air, he felt a surge of panic. He landed on one knee and felt something twist sharply before he toppled to the side. He went dizzy for a second, but he was operating on instinct by then and again escaped without harm.
His first score was barely enough to keep him in the top fifteen, and in the short go, the final round, he rode again, finishing ninth overall.
Afterward, he didn't wait around. After texting his mom, he started the truck and peeled out of the parking lot, making it back to the ranch a little after four a.m. Seeing the lights on in the main house, he surmised that his mom had either risen early or, more likely, hadn't gone to bed.
He texted her again after turning off the engine, not expecting a reply.
As usual, he didn't get one.
In the morning, after two hours of fitful sleep, Luke hobbled into the farmhouse just as his mom was finishing up at the stove. Eggs over medium, sausage links, and pancakes, the flavorful aroma filling the kitchen.
"Hey, Mom," he said, reaching for a cup. He hid the limp as best he could as he moved to the coffeepot, thinking he'd end up needing a lot more than a cup or two to wash down the ibuprofen he clutched in his hand.
His mom studied him as he poured. "You're hurt," she said, sounding less angry than he'd expected. More concerned.
"It's not too bad," he said, leaning on the counter, trying not to wince. "My knee swelled up a bit on the drive home, that's all. It just needs to loosen up."
She brought her lips together, obviously wondering whether she should believe him, before finally nodding. "Okay," she said, and after shifting the frying pan to a cold burner, she enveloped him in a hug, the first in weeks. The embrace lasted a beat longer than usual, as if she were trying to make up for lost time. When she pulled back, he noticed the bags under her eyes and he knew she was operating on as little sleep as he was. She patted him on the chest. "Go ahead and have a seat," she said. "I'll bring over your breakfast."
He moved slowly, taking care not to spill his coffee. By the time he'd straightened his leg beneath the table in an attempt to get comfortable, his mom had set the plate in front of him. She put the coffeepot on the table, then took a seat beside him. Her plate had exactly half the amount of food she'd put on his.
"I knew you'd be late getting in, so I went ahead and fed the animals and checked the cattle this morning."
That she didn't admit to waiting up didn't surprise him, nor would she complain about it.
"Thanks," he said. "How many people came by yesterday?"
"Maybe two hundred, but it rained a while in the afternoon, so there'll probably be more people today."
"Do I need to restock?"
She nodded. "Jose got some of it done before he went home, but we probably need some more pumpkins."
He ate a few bites in silence. "I got thrown," he said. "That's how I hurt my knee. I landed wrong."
She tapped her fork against her plate. "I know," she said.
"How would you know?"
"Liz, the gal from the arena office, called," she said. "She gave me a rundown on your rides. She and I go back a long way, remember?"
He hadn't expected that, and at first, he wasn't sure what to say. Instead, he speared a piece of the sausage and chewed, eager to change the subject.
"Before I left, I mentioned that Sophia will be coming by, right?"
"For dinner," she said. "I was thinking of blueberry pie for dessert."
"You don't have to do that."
"I already did," she said, pointing with her fork toward the counter. In the corner, beneath the cabinets, he spotted her favorite ceramic pie dish, rivulets of blueberry juice seared onto its sides.
"When did you do that?"
"Last night," she said. "I had some time after we finished up with the customers. Do you want me to toss together a stew?"
"No, that's okay," he said. "I was thinking I'd grill some steaks."
"So mashed potatoes, then," she added, already thinking ahead. "And green beans. I'll make a salad, too."
"You don't have to do all that."
"Of course I do. She's a guest. Besides, I've tried your mashed potatoes, and if you want her to come back, it's better if I make them."
He grinned. Only then did he realize that - in addition to baking the pie - she'd tidied up around the kitchen. Probably the house as well.
"Thanks," he said. "But don't be too hard on her."
"I'm not hard on anybody. And sit up straight when you're talking to me."
He laughed. "I take it you've finally forgiven me, huh?"
"Not at all," she said. "I'm still angry that you competed in those events, but I can't do anything about it now. And besides, the season's over. I figure you'll come to your senses before January. You might act dumb sometimes, but I'd like to think I raised you better than to act dumb all the time."
He said nothing, reluctant to start an argument. "You'll like Sophia," he said, changing the subject.
"I should think so. Since she's the first girl you've ever invited over."
"Angie used to come over."
"She's married to someone else now. And besides, you were a kid. It doesn't count."
"I wasn't a kid. I was a senior in high school."
He cut another piece of pancake and swirled it in the syrup. "Even if I think you're wrong, I'm glad we're talking again."
She forked a piece of egg. "Me too."
For Luke, the rest of the day took on a strange cast. Ordinarily, after breakfast he'd immediately start work, doing his best to cross items off the to-do list and always prioritizing. Some things had to be taken care of immediately - like getting the pumpkins ready before the customers started rolling in or checking on an injured animal.
As a rule, time passed quickly. He'd move from one project to the next, and before he knew it, it would be time for a quick lunch. The same thing would happen in the afternoons. Most days, feeling a little frustrated that he hadn't quite finished a given task, he'd find himself walking into the farmhouse just as dinner was about to be served, wondering how the hours had escaped him.
Today promised to be no different, and as his mom had predicted, it was even busier than it had been on Saturday. Cars and trucks and minivans lined both sides of the drive, nearly back to the main road, and kids were everywhere. Despite the lingering soreness in his knee, he carried pumpkins, helped parents locate their kids in the maze, and filled hundreds of balloons with helium. The balloons were new this year, as were the hot dogs and chips and soda, at a table manned by his mom. But as he moved from one duty to the next, he would find himself thinking about Sophia. From time to time he checked his watch, sure that hours had passed, only to realize it had been a mere twenty minutes.
He wanted to see her again. He'd talked to her on the phone on Friday and Saturday, and each time he'd called her, he'd been nervous before she picked up. He knew how he felt about her; the problem was that he had no idea whether she felt the same way. Before dialing, he found it all too easy to imagine that she'd answer with only tepid enthusiasm. Even though she had been both cheerful and chatty, after hanging up, he'd replay the conversation, plagued by doubts about her true feelings.
It was just about the oddest thing he'd ever experienced. He wasn't some giddy, obsessive teenager. He'd never been like that, and for the first time in his life, he wasn't sure what to do. All he really knew for certain was that he wanted to spend time with her and that dinner couldn't come soon enough.
ou know what this means, right? Dinner with his mom?" Marcia said. As she spoke, she was nibbling from a box of raisins, which Sophia knew would comprise her breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the day. Marcia, like a lot of girls in the house, either saved her calories for cocktails later or made up for the extra cocktail calories from the night before.
Sophia was fastening a clip in her hair, just about ready to go.
"I think it means we're going to eat."
"You're being evasive again," Marcia noted. "You didn't even tell me what you two did on Thursday night."
"I told you we changed our minds and went out for some Japanese food. And then we drove to the ranch."
"Wow," she said. "I can practically imagine the whole night unfolding in high detail."
"What do you want me to say?" Sophia said, exasperated.
"I want details. Specifics. And since you're so obviously trying not to tell me, I'm just going to assume that you two got hot and heavy."
Sophia finished with the clip. "We didn't. Which makes me wonder why you're so interested..."
"Oh, gee, I don't know. Maybe because of the way you've been flitting around the room? Because when we went to the party on Friday night, you didn't freak out even when you saw Brian? And during the football game, when your cowboy called, you wandered off to talk to him, even though the team was just about to score. If you ask me, it seems like things are already getting serious."
"We met last weekend. It's not serious yet."
Marcia shook her head. "No. I'm not buying it. I think you like this guy a lot more than you're saying. But I should also warn you that it's probably not a good idea."
When Sophia turned toward her, Marcia dumped the last of the raisins into her palm and crumpled the box. She tossed it toward the garbage and missed, as usual. "You just came off a relationship. You're on the rebound. And rebound relationships never work," she said with complete assurance.
"I'm not on the rebound. I broke up with Brian a long time ago."
"It wasn't so long ago. And just so you know, he's still not over you. Even after what happened last weekend, he still wants you back."
"I'm just trying to remind you that Luke is the first guy you've gone out with since then. Which means that you haven't had time to figure out what it is you really want in a guy. You're still off-kilter. Can't you remember the way you were acting last weekend? You freaked out because Brian showed up. And now, while in this emotional state, you've found someone else. That's what rebound means, and rebound relationships don't work because you're not in the right frame of mind. Luke isn't Brian. I get that. All I'm trying to say is that, in a few months, you might want something more than simply, He's not Brian. And by then, if you're not careful, you'll get hurt. Or he will."
"I'm just going to dinner," Sophia protested. "It's not that big of a deal."
Marcia popped the last of the raisins into her mouth. "If you say so."
Sometimes, Sophia hated her roommate. Like right now, while driving out to the ranch. She'd been in a good mood for the past three days, even enjoying the party and Friday's football game. Earlier today, she'd gotten a big chunk done on a paper for her Renaissance art class, which wasn't due until Tuesday. All in all, an excellent weekend, and then, just as she was getting ready to cap it off in just the right way, Marcia had to open her mouth and put all these crazy thoughts in her head. Because one thing she knew
for sure was that she wasn't on the rebound.
The thing was, she wasn't simply over Brian, she was glad about it. Since last spring, the relationship had made her feel like Jacob Marley, the ghost in A Christmas Carol, who had to carry forever the chains he'd forged in life. After Brian had cheated the second time, part of her had checked out emotionally, even though she didn't end it right away. She'd still loved him, just not in the same blind, innocent, all-consuming way. Part of her had known he wouldn't change, and that feeling only grew stronger over the summer, and her instincts were proven right. By the time they'd broken up, it felt as if it had already been over for a long time.