July, 1992. Shawnee, Oklahoma. He sat at the edge of the pool with his feet dangling in the water, leaning back slightly, arms angling down and away from his shoulders, the weight of his torso resting on the palms of his hands. There with the rest of us boys, bare-chested, bare-legged, our attention on the girls, the girls and their bikinis, their hairless smooth skin, those tight midsections. And while we splashed and flexed and did what we could to get their attention, he stole it all away with his shy, innocent smile that suggested maybe he hadn’t as much experience as some of them and perhaps they’d like to catch him up a bit. All of us teenagers still, children really, cowgirls and cowboys out of our jeans, half-clad, our young flesh toned and fit from riding horses and bulls.
That was a Sunday. On Thursday he died.
And that is what killed him. A bull. A big, high-horned brindle named Sam Hall.
I didn’t witness the dying, not with my eyes, only with my ears. That night my attention was trained down on a flat-backed red bull, on his twitching flesh, on the mass of muscle that started just behind his ears and swelled into the enormity of his shoulders. I slid my feet down along his sides, rested my boots on the rungs of the iron chute, my right leg trembling as it always did moments before I had to nod my head. In the arena a chute gate clanged open and the crowd exploded into cheers, and then I heard the first impact, that dull thudding of bone shattering inside the shell that made up the scalp and the face, then there was a second thud, and a third. A collective groan traveled through the night, followed by silence. A moment passed, and then I heard a young bull rider say, “He broke something.” Now I peered over the cowboy hats and the iron chutes, but he was too close, too lowdown and I could not see his crumpled body. Paramedics ran through a gate and the ambulance followed. The announcer said, “Is there a doctor in the crowd? We could really use a doctor.”
Fifteen years later, standing over my newborn daughter in the delivery room of Saint Alphonsus, the sound comes back to me — the unique sound of a skull shattering, the shattering muted by skin and flesh. The skull imploding into the brain, destroying the signals and emotions, the computer that generated the messages and sent them to the rest of the body, to the organs that kept it living. That, the sound of his dying.
But before then, before he was killed by Sam Hall, we were all kids in a pool escaping the heat of the Oklahoma sun, the thick scent of chlorine and wet skin and hair surrounding us. Some of us eighteen, but children nonetheless. I know that now, these fifteen-years later, reaching out to my newborn daughter, her toothless mouth open and her wails coming out feeble and ferocious at the same time, placing my hand on her chest and feeling her tiny, rapid heart fluttering against my palm. We were still our parents’ children and his parents lost their son that Thursday night. A boy the same as I was, alive in that pool with his feet dangling in the water, smiling a shy smile, an innocent smile. His parents’ child. And in the palm of my hand is my daughter’s heart, my child — half me, half her mother — and her lungs are filled with air that bursts from her oval, toothless mouth, bursts out in a feeble and ferocious sound that scares me, this the sound of her living, the only sound that matters now.
Rex L. Adams lives near Marsing, Idaho with his wife and two young daughters, and works on a small drill rig in the North Dakota oil fields. He grew up on a farm and ranch in Eastern Washington. His short story, “Fighting Arlie Horn,” will appear in Confrontation in May, 2013.
This story is sponsored by
Jenny Schwartz — Australian contemporary romance author in love with steampunk.