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Authors: Karen Kingsbury

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BOOK: A Thousand Tomorrows & Just Beyond the Clouds Omnibus
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“I miss him, too.” She sat on the edge of his bed. Her eyes were red and swollen, and her voice was tired. “I love him, Cody. It’s not my fault he left.”

“It is too your fault!” Cody closed his eyes and remembered
his father leaving. When he opened them the anger inside him was bursting to get out. “You told him to go!”

“Cody.” His mom touched his foot. Her fingers were shaking. “I didn’t mean it.”

“Yes you did!” His voice got louder. “You told him to go and never come back.”

“Because I was mad. I didn’t really want him to go.”

But nothing she said that night or any other time was enough to convince Cody. She told his dad to leave, and not only that, she did nothing to make him stay. Maybe if she’d been nicer to him, helped him find another football job. Made him better dinners. Anything to make sure he didn’t walk out the door.

Even when it no longer made sense, long after his childhood days blended into middle school, Cody blamed her. Because it was easier to dole out blame than it was to unravel the knot of hatred and sort through the loose ends of a lifetime of bitterness.

By the time Cody was in seventh grade, the football coach approached him.

“You’re Mike Gunner’s boy, right? Atlanta Falcons back a few years ago?”

Cody bristled, his spine stiff. “Yes, sir.”

“Well.” The coach gave a few slow nods. “I’ve watched you out with the other boys.” The man hesitated. “You’re good, Cody. You play just like your dad. The varsity coach over at the high school wants you to join ’em for practice a few times a week. How does that sound?”

Cody made a hurried attempt at trying to sort through
his emotions.
Just like my dad?
He swallowed, not sure what to say.

The coach raised his brow, as if maybe he expected a different reaction. “What can I tell ’em, Gunner? You interested?”

“Yes, sir.” He coughed and his words got stuck in his throat. Was that why he loved the game, loved the way the ball felt in the crook of his arm, tucked against his ribs, the way his feet flew down the field? Because he was Mike Gunner’s boy? The anger that lived and breathed in that dark closet of his heart roared so loud it took his breath away.

If football was his father’s legacy, he wanted nothing to do with it.

The coach started walking away. “Okay, then. I’ll tell him you’ll be there.”

“Sir?” Cody’s face grew hot. He waited until the coach turned around. “What I mean is, no, sir. I won’t go; I’m not interested.”

The coach gave him a strange look. Then he laughed. “Of course you’re interested, Gunner.” He twisted his face. “Football’s in your blood.”

“No, sir.” Cody’s mind raced, desperate for an answer. “I’m… I’m going out for band.”

“Band?” The word clearly left a bad taste in the coach’s mouth. “You’re kidding, right?”

“No, sir.” Cody tried to look serious. “I… I love band.” He hesitated. He would no sooner go out for band than dye his hair pink. Cody felt himself relax; he stood a little taller. “Band’s what I live for.”

The coach studied him, a frown deepening the lines in
his forehead. Then he shrugged and took a step back. “Suit yourself, Gunner. I’ll tell ’em you have other plans.”

As Cody watched the man leave, a certainty filled his soul. He would never pick up a football again as long as he lived. No matter his feelings for the game, if seeing him with a pigskin reminded people of his father, he wanted none of it.

Later that year he fell in with a group of 4-H kids, guys who needed help with their farming or livestock. Cody was a quick study, and after a few months he could handle a horse as well as the kids who’d been on them for years.

One night just before summer, he and the guys met at the fairgrounds to watch the high school rodeo team practice. They moved close to the fence and Cody breathed it in, the heavy smell of bull hides. Cody knew about bull riding, but that night was the first time he ever saw a cowboy ride. The guy was a junior, a scrawny kid Cody had seen around town. Slow and careful, the cowboy lowered himself onto a jet-black bull, and in a blur the gate flew open and the animal burst into the arena.

Wild and out of control, the bull bucked and jerked and reared his head back. It was all the cowboy could do to hold on, and after six seconds, he slid to one side of the animal’s back and fell hard in a heap to the ground.

“No good!” an older cowboy shouted. The man was in his late twenties, maybe. The rodeo coach, no doubt. “You need eight, Ronny. Eight seconds.”

The kid picked himself up, dusted off his loose-fitting jeans and pressed his cowboy hat onto his head. His voice held a type of respect Cody admired. “Yes, sir. Eight seconds.”

Five bulls stood together in a stock pen. The black one, two brown, one gray- and white-spotted, and one that was broad and yellow with a hump between its shoulders. One after another Ronny and a handful of high school cowboys took on the bulls while their instructor shouted out advice.

“Find the seat, Taylor, find it and keep it!… Move your legs, Ronny…. Kevin, bring your hand up higher over your head! Okay, good.”

Cody barely heard any of it.

He was too busy watching the bulls, studying them, hypnotized by their fury. Those eight seconds, while the cowboy was on the bull’s back, were the picture of a battle he knew intimately. The war he waged every day against the anger and rage within him. The way the rider struggled to stay on through the violent bucking, looking for the center of a ride that was never even close to controlled. It was the same way he fought to stay on top of the emotions that boiled inside him.

Before he could voice what he was feeling, without saying a word to his buddies, he followed the fence around the arena and walked up to the man still barking orders at the cowboys.

“That’s better, Ronny; can you feel it? Keep it centered!”

“Sir?” Cody squared his legs and crossed his arms.

The man gripped the crown of his hat and looked over his shoulder. “Whadya want, kid?”

Cody didn’t hesitate. “I want to ride.”

“Yeah?” The coach smiled and a sarcastic chuckle sounded deep in his throat. “What are you, eleven?”

“Thirteen.” The anger grew a few degrees hotter. He straightened himself. “I’ll stay on any bull you’ve got.”

The man leaned into the fence and sized him up. “What grade you in? Seventh?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Another year before you can ride for me.” He turned toward the action in the arena.

Cody stared at the man’s back and clenched his teeth. He didn’t need anyone’s permission to ride a bull. It was his own thing; between the bull and him. He continued around the arena to the chutes.

One of the cowboys shot him a look. “Hey, kid, get lost. This is for cowboys only.”

“I’m a cowboy.” He nodded the brim of his hat toward the coach. “He wants to see what I can do.”

The kid frowned, but then his expression eased. He raised one shoulder. “Okay. Take the next one.”

He should’ve been scared, at least. The bulls had no horns, but the animals were massive. One slip beneath those muscled legs, and there wouldn’t be any ride to remember. Cody worked the muscles in his jaw. As long as the coach didn’t see him in the chutes, he’d be all right.

When it was his turn, he glanced at the coach and felt himself relax. The guy was talking to three riders, his back to the chute. Cody held his breath. He wasn’t leaving the arena without getting on a bull.

“Take your ride, little man,” one of the bigger cowboys shouted at him. “We’re waiting.”

Cody bit down hard and steadied himself. Then he did
what he’d seen the other cowboys do. He climbed into the chute, one foot on either side of the bull, and fumbled with the rope. His hand had to be wrapped to the bull somehow, right? He flipped the rope around, trying to make a loop.

“Oh, brother. Ain’t you ever done this?” The cowboy on the gate leaned over. “Which hand you ridin’ with?”

Which hand? Cody gulped and thrust his right hand out.

“That’ll do.” The cowboy set to work wrapping Cody’s hand, palm up, until it was tight against the bull’s back. “Slide forward.”

Cody did as he was told. That’s when he noticed the look in the bull’s eyes.

Lifeless, hard eyes, trying to catch a glimpse of whichever mortal had dared climb on his back. Cody stared at the beast. The anger in the animal’s expression was rivaled only by his own.

“Ya hear me, cowboy? You ready?”

Cody blinked. What was he doing, sitting on a bull? Was he crazy? Fear tried to say something, but anger kicked it in the shins.
Come on, bull, give it all you got. Your fury’s nothing compared to mine
. He nodded. “Ready.”

The chute was open.

Stay centered
, wasn’t that what the coach had told the other riders?
Keep your seat; stay centered
. He focused on the animal’s back, and suddenly he wasn’t fighting to stay on a bucking bull. He was taking on his father, battling the loneliness and rejection and abandonment, focusing all his rage on the beast.

How many times had thoughts of his dad made him want
to punch his hand through a wall or rip a door from its hinges? Running helped some, but nothing eased the rage in his heart.

Nothing until now.

The buzzer sounded. Cody pulled his hand free and swung his legs over the side of the bull. Something was making its way through his veins, but it took a few seconds to realize what it was.

Relief.

For the first time since his father walked out, his heart didn’t feel paralyzed with rage. The reason was obvious: he’d left every bit of emotion on the back of the bull.

Only then did he hear the coach bellowing in his direction. One of the cowboys herded the bull back into the chute, and a hush fell over the arena. Cody turned and stood frozen, facing the man. His buddies had moved closer. They were clustered outside the fence, eyes wide.

“Stay there, kid. Don’t move!” Even in the shadowy arena lights, the coach’s cheeks were bright red. He stormed up to Cody until their faces were inches apart. His voice fell to a dangerous hiss. “I told you to go home.”

“Sorry, sir.” Cody swallowed hard, but he didn’t break eye contact. “I… I had to ride tonight. I
had
to.”

The man twisted his face into a sneer aimed at Cody. Then, bit by bit, his face unwound and he took a step back. “Where’d you learn to ride like that?”

He couldn’t lie to the man now; not if he wanted to ride again. “That was my first ride, sir.”

“Your first…” The coach narrowed his eyes. “That was your first time on a bull?”

“Yes, sir.” Cody pulled himself a bit straighter. “I’m sorry, sir.”

The man hung his thumbs on his belt buckle. “What’s your name, boy?”

“Cody. Cody Gunner.”

“You going to Jefferson High, Gunner?”

“Yes, sir.” He looked at the ground for a moment. “When I’m old enough.”

“You wanna be a bull rider, is that it?”

A bull rider? Cody hadn’t considered the idea before. But he wanted to climb back on a bull more than he’d ever wanted anything. Cody exhaled, still catching his breath, his eyes on the coach again. The rush from the ride was wearing off. “Yes, sir. I want that.”

The coach hesitated. This was the part where he’d kick Cody out of the arena and tell him he’d never ride for Jefferson’s rodeo team. Not ever. Cody waited, unable to blink under the man’s stare.

But instead of ordering him home or threatening him for his actions, the coach gave a single nod. The hint of a rusty old smile tugged on his lips. “You know something, Cody Gunner? I think you’ll be a pretty good one.”

After that, there was no turning back.

Cody’s birthday was three weeks later, in June. He wanted just one thing—tuition and transportation to a bull-riding school in Colorado.

“Bull riding?” His mother frowned. “Cody, that’s the craziest sport on earth.” She crossed her arms and tapped her foot. “You can do anything but that.” She turned back to the dishes
she’d been doing. “Play football like your daddy. At least then you’ll go head-to-head with a boy your size. Not a bull.”

Football like his daddy? Cody felt his gaze harden. He had nothing but contempt for his mother. After all this time she still didn’t get it, didn’t understand him. Sure, she was easy on him. She didn’t give him rules the way other boys had rules from their parents. Instead she gave him whatever he wanted, and peppered him with questions. “Cody, how are you?” “Cody, what’re you thinking?” “Cody, what are you feeling?” “Cody, what’s wrong?”

He was sick of her questions, sick of her trying to make up for the fact that he didn’t have a dad. She never hassled him about his attitude or lack of kindness, even when he secretly wished she would.

But if she could suggest football, she didn’t even know him.

Carl Joseph must’ve heard the conversation because he pushed his way between them. He was eight by then, as sweet and simple as he’d been at two. “Cody, brother, c’mere!”

The heat in Cody’s anger cooled. Carl Joseph was his best friend, the only one he could trust. Cody couldn’t count the times he’d wished it were he and not Carl Joseph who’d been born with Down syndrome. Because at least Carl Joseph was happy, too simple to understand even that their father had gone away, let alone the reasons why. Carl Joseph’s eyes were honest and full of light, and his enthusiasm knew no limits. He called Cody “brother,” and Cody called him “buddy.”

Carl Joseph grabbed his hand and pulled. “C’mon, brother, talk to me.”

“Just a minute, buddy.” Cody glared at his mother. “It’s Mom’s turn.”

“No, Cody!” Carl Joseph grinned big and tugged a little harder. His voice was loud, excited.

This time Cody couldn’t resist. He gave his mother a look and let himself be pulled into the next room. When Carl Joseph thought they were alone, his eyes sparkled. “You gonna ride a bull, Cody?”

Cody’s heart swelled at the transparent look in his brother’s eyes. A look of thrill and pride and expectancy. “Yes, buddy. I’m gonna be a bull rider.”

“Remember, brother? We watched bull riding on TV?” He rocked back and forth, nervous, anticipating.

“We sure did, buddy.” Cody put his arm around Carl Joseph’s shoulders and gave him a sideways hug.

BOOK: A Thousand Tomorrows & Just Beyond the Clouds Omnibus
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