"I'm sorry to have to tell you this, Mr. Levinson, but there was nothing we could do..."
At these words, I gripped a nearby bed rail to keep from falling. The room seemed to close in as the doctor went on, my vision telescoping until I could see nothing but his face. His words sounded tinny and made no sense, but it did not matter. His expression was plain - I'd been too late. Ruth, my sweet Ruth, had died on the floor while I dozed in the other room.
I do not remember leaving the hospital, and the next few days are hazy. My attorney, Howie Sanders, a dear friend to both Ruth and me, helped with the funeral arrangements, a small, private service. Afterward, the candles were lit, cushions were spread through the house, and I sat shiva for a week. People came and went, people we had known over the years. Neighbors, including the man who'd cut down the maple tree. Customers from the shop. Three gallery owners from New York. Half a dozen artists. Women from the synagogue came every day to cook and clean. And on each of those days, I found myself wishing that I would wake from the nightmare that my life had just become.
But gradually the people drifted away, until no one was left at all. There was no one to call, no one to talk to, and the house descended into silence. I did not know how to live that kind of life, and time became merciless. Days crept by slowly. I could not concentrate. I would read the newspaper and remember nothing at all. I would sit for hours before realizing that I'd left the radio on in the background. Even the birds did nothing to cheer me; I would stare at them and think to myself that Ruth should have been sitting beside me, our hands brushing as we reached into the bag for birdseed.
Nothing made any sense, nor did I want to make sense of it. My days were spent in the quiet agony of heartbreak. Evenings were no better. Late at night, as I lay in the half-empty bed unable to sleep, I would feel the dampness trickling off my cheeks. I'd wipe my eyes and be struck anew by the finality of Ruth's absence.
t all went back to the ride on Big Ugly Critter.
The one he'd had nightmares about, the one that had kept him away from the arena for eighteen months. He'd told Sophia about the ride and a bit about the injuries he'd suffered.
But he hadn't told her everything. As he stood in the barn after his mother had left, Luke leaned against the mechanical bull, reliving the past he'd tried hard to forget.
It was eight days before he'd even known what had happened. Although he knew he had been hurt and, after some prompting, could vaguely remember the ride, he'd had no idea how close he'd come to dying. He'd had no idea that in addition to fracturing his skull, the bull had cracked his C1 vertebra and that his brain had swelled with blood.
He hadn't told Sophia that they didn't reset the bones in his face for almost a month, for fear of causing additional trauma. Nor had he mentioned that the doctors had returned to his bedside to tell him that he'd never completely recover from the head injury - and that in a section of his skull, there was now a small titanium plate. The doctors told him that another similar impact to his head, with or without a helmet, would most likely be enough to kill him. The plate they had grafted onto his shattered skull was too close to the brain stem to adequately protect him.
After that first meeting with the doctors, he'd had fewer questions than anyone anticipated. He'd decided right then to give up bull riding, and he'd told everyone as much. He knew he'd miss the rodeo and that he'd probably wonder forever what it would have felt like to win the championship. But he'd never entertained a death wish, and at the time, he'd thought he still had plenty of money in the bank.
And he had, but it wasn't enough. His mom had offered up the ranch as collateral for the loan she'd taken out to cover his monstrous medical bills. Though she'd told him repeatedly that she didn't care about the fate of the ranch, he knew that deep down, she did. The ranch was her life, it was all she knew, and everything she'd done since the accident had confirmed her feelings. In the past year, she'd worked herself to the point of exhaustion in an attempt to forestall the inevitable. She could say whatever she wanted, but he knew the truth...
He could save the ranch. No, he couldn't earn enough in the next year - or even three years - to pay off the loan, but he was a good enough rider to earn enough to meet the payments and then some, even if he rode only on the little tour. He admired his mom's efforts with the Christmas trees and the pumpkins and expanding the herd, but both of them knew it wasn't going to be enough. He'd heard enough about the cost of fixing this or that to know that things were tight even in the best of times.
So what was he supposed to do? He had to either pretend that everything was going to work out - which wasn't possible - or find a way to fix the problem. And he knew exactly how to fix the problem. All he had to do was ride well.
But even if he rode well, he still might die.
Luke understood the risks. That was the reason his hands shook every time he prepared to ride. It wasn't that he was rusty or that he was plagued with ordinary nerves. It was the fact that when he used the suicide wrap to hold on, a part of him wondered if this would be his last ride.
It wasn't possible to ride successfully with that kind of fear. Unless, of course, there was something greater at stake, and for him, it came down to the ranch. And his mom. She wasn't going to lose the ranch because of him.
He shook his head. He didn't want to think about these things. It was hard enough to find the confidence he knew he needed to last - and win - over the course of a season. The one thing that you didn't want to think about was not being able to ride.
Or dying in the process...
He hadn't been lying to the doctor when he said that he was ready to quit. He knew what a life of riding could do to a man; he'd watched his father wince and struggle in the mornings, and he'd felt the same pains himself. He'd lived through all the training and he'd given it his best, but it hadn't worked out. And eighteen months ago, he'd been okay with that.
But right now, standing beside the mechanical bull, he knew that he had no choice. He pulled on his glove, then he took a deep breath and climbed onto the bull. Hanging off the horn was the control, and he took it in his free hand. But maybe because the season was getting close, or maybe because he hadn't told the complete truth to Sophia, he couldn't press the button. Not yet, anyway.
He reminded himself that he knew what might happen, and he tried to convince himself he was ready. He was ready to ride, he was preparing to ride, no matter what might happen. He was a bull rider. He'd done it for as long as he could remember, and he would do it again. He'd ride, because he was good at riding, and then all their problems would be solved...
Except that if he landed wrong, he might die.
All at once, his hands began to tremble. But, steeling himself, he finally pressed the button anyway.
On her way back from New Jersey, Sophia made a detour to the ranch before returning to campus. Luke was expecting her and had tidied up both the house and the porch in anticipation.
It was dark when her car pulled to a stop in front of his house. He bounded down the porch steps to meet her, wondering if anything had changed since he'd last seen her. Those worries evaporated as soon as she stepped out of her car and rushed toward him.
He caught her as she jumped, feeling her legs wrap around him. As they held each other, he reveled in how good she felt, certain again of how much she meant to him, wondering what the future would hold.
They made love that evening, but Sophia couldn't stay the night. The new semester was beginning and she had an early class. Once her taillights vanished up the drive, Luke turned and walked toward the barn for yet another practice session. He wasn't in the mood, but with the first event in less than two weeks, he reminded himself of how much more he had to do.
On his way to the barn, he made the decision to keep the practice shorter than usual, no more than an hour. He was tired and it was cold and he missed Sophia's presence already.
Inside the barn, he went thro
ugh 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."