“Traveller” by Chris Stapleton
I wince as a sharp ray of sunlight strikes my windshield just so and beams into my eyes, making me curse and briefly swerve before course correcting and picking up speed again, my truck blazing a path down the 35. The highway is barren, no other cars to my left or right. It would feel lonely, but luckily I have a son-of-a-bitch hangover and a stinging sense of hurt pride to keep me company right on through.
It’s been eleven days since the doctor told me my career was over. Eleven days of pretty much drowning in the bottom of a bottle. I did the one thing that I swore I would never do—become the man that raised me.
Everything I’ve worked for, gone.
Everything I had ever dreamed of, vanished.
I had every single thing I ever wanted in the palm of my hand. Riding was all I ever needed, and now that it’s
gone, the only thing I have left to show for my broken dreams is a fat bank account, buckles thrown carelessly in the backseat, a duffel bag of clothing, and one fucked-up body. Everything I own shoved into my truck, one measly cab’s worth of belongings.
Just like that, Maverick “The Unstoppable” Davis was, in fact, stopped, and every second that I’ve pushed myself to reach the top might as well have been for nothing. Ten years of living my dream, gone like it never existed.
You haven’t lost the only life you’ve ever wanted. The small voice in the back of my head just pisses me off even more. Like I need another reminder of what my chasing these now lost dreams cost me. That voice is right, though, riding isn’t the only life I wanted for myself . . . not that I have a chance at the other now though. Not after I made sure to destroy every chance for it.
My head starts pounding even harder. Adjusting my hold on the wheel, I grab my Stetson and place it beside me on the passenger seat, resting my head against the headrest as my mind starts to wander, again.
Bull riding is one of the two things in my life that bring peace. I was meant to ride just as I was meant to draw air in my lungs to live. The drive I felt to ride beat alongside my heart. Without it, I wouldn’t be me. Since I was old enough to walk, I would climb on the back of our ranch’s sheep and pretend I was fighting for that perfect eight seconds on the back of the biggest, baddest motherfucking bull on the circuit. The fearless streak has never left me, and it’s always been the driving force for me to take on
any beast that was in the way of me claiming the championship.
I left home before the ink on my high school diploma was dry. All these years later, I’m not sure what pushed me to hightail it out of town: my need to chase my dream, or to escape the life I had that I was barely surviving. Deep down though, I knew I couldn’t stay, no matter how much I wish I could have. I had already burned the only bridge that meant something to me in that town, because I believed that I couldn’t have anything pulling me back, tying me down. I knew for certain that if I couldn’t have it all, at least I was going to make sure everything I gave up wasn’t for nothing. I vowed from that day on I would rule the world.
And I did.
For almost ten years I’ve been the biggest name in professional bull riding. There wasn’t a beast I couldn’t conquer.
Until I met Lucifer.
One hundred and four consecutive buck offs, and his hundred and fifth was the one that took everything away from me.
Too many head injuries, the doctor said, shaking his head at my scans. One more and I’ll be leaving the arena in a body bag, he warned. I would be a dead man riding if they cleared me, he promised.
So just like that . . . it was gone. That dream vanished right along with the only thing I had left in my life that didn’t cause me fucking pain.
I slam my palm down on the steering wheel as the doctor’s words come back to me again, running in the same
continuous loop that I had been trying to drink out of my mind for days. Haunting my memories and reminding me that I’ll never be able to get back what I had.
My phone rings, breaking into my self-loathing thoughts, and I know without looking at the phone or my truck’s dashboard that it’s Clay, my older brother, probably calling to ask me—again—what time I’ll be in Pine Oak.
I press the hands-free button on my steering wheel.
“What?” I snap.
“Well, well . . . seems my always pleasant little brother is excited to be headed home,” Clay responds to my short-tempered greeting with sarcasm dripping from his words.
I reach over and pull a pack of smokes from my cup holder, putting off responding so I can light up and take a deep drag, blowing the smoke out audibly. My headache ramping up another notch at my brother’s annoyed, scornful tone.
“You smokin’ again, Mav? Thought you gave that shit up.”
“I’ve got a lot on my mind, Clay.”
“Yeah, you and me both, brother. What time are you gettin’ here? Quinn’s wantin’ to wait for you before we leave for the church, but if you’re not close, we’re going to have to just head on over.”
“Don’t wait for me, Clay. I’m not really sure I want to go.”
“What?” His voice is hard, unforgiving, and it fucking kills me that I’m letting him down. Again.
“You heard me, Clay. What’s the point? The old man didn’t want me around ten years ago, so makes sense he wouldn’t want me there now either.”
“Roll your goddamn window up so I can hear somethin’ other than your fuckin’ tires,” Clay demands.
I take another long drag before flicking my cigarette out the window and rolling it up, switching the AC on before the thick Texas heat kills me.
Clay’s silent for a beat. I hear his boots striking the ground through our connection, the heavy tread his tell that he’s pissed. “Here, asshole. You’re thinkin’ of not comin’, tell Quinn that, and I’ll talk to you later.”
He says a few words that I can’t make out before my little sister’s voices takes his place, coming through sweet and sorrowful over the speakers in my truck.
“Hey,” she says softly. “You almost here, Mav?” She sniffles a few times and I silently curse Clay for playing the Quinn card.
“Hey, hell-raiser,” I say with a sigh, wishing I wasn’t driving and I could go to the nearest liquor store and spend the next few hours blissfully drunk. “I’ll meet you guys at the church. I’m still an hour or so out.”
“Okay, Mav. Love you.”
“Love you too, darlin’.”
I wait, knowing Clay isn’t going to miss a chance to get back on the phone after getting what he wanted by using our sister.
“I’ll see you there, Mav.” He lowers his voice, probably so Quinn won’t hear him laying into me. “Don’t fuck this day up. You don’t want to be there, I get that, but things weren’t like they were when you left. You didn’t want to hear it before, but it’s time. Get over your pride and make sure you show up, if not for him—do it
for Quinn. Don’t let her down when she needs you the most.”
I don’t respond, instead disconnecting the call, shutting off the stale AC, and rolling the window back down. The steady hum of my tires against the hot asphalt is the only thing I hear as my thoughts consume me yet again.
It’s been a decade since I last stepped foot in Pine Oak, Texas. Other than Clay and Quinn, there was nothing left for me there.
That’s a lie.
My foot jerks on the gas as the whispered thought floats through my mind. I can’t let myself go there. Not when there is so much unknown in my life. Not since the one way I’ve been able to find peace in my mind is now gone—and the other is the one thing I can’t allow myself to hope for anymore.
I kept in touch with my brother and sister over the years, but Clay’s right—I didn’t want to hear shit about the goings-on. There was only one person other than them that, at one time, I would have soaked up any mention of, but pride stopped me from ever asking, the regrets eating me alive too much to bear. Not for the first time, I wonder how things would have turned out had I not been so hell-bent on escaping.
With every turn of my tires, the dread in my stomach multiplies and the pounding in my skull grows louder. My skin flushes hot then cold as my breathing speeds up. All this time away, and just being close to home makes me feel trapped all over again, which makes not a damn bit
of sense seeing as the one man who held the keys to my metaphorical cage is dead.
I told myself all those years ago I would never look back. Nothing would ever make it worth coming back to this hellhole.
That’s a lie.
“Goddammit!” I bellow, the sound harsh and a little panicked even to my own ears.
Yeah, I used riding as an excuse to get away from Pine Oak. It wasn’t a lie, per se; the need to ride has always been an inch just below the skin, something I couldn’t ignore. It was what I used to leave, my excuse to escape. But there was one thing I might have actually wanted more than even riding—and, because I ran away from it, I’ve spent every day with the ghost of regrets licking out of the shadows.
I left to chase my dreams—but I also left to escape him, knowing that after the hell he put me through my whole life, leaving to do the one thing I knew he despised so much would be a giant fuck you to him.
Ironically enough, the same man that helped push me out is now dragging me back.
Looks like the old man was right when he said one day I would be crawling back with my tail tucked between my legs. A failure that would be begging him to take me back when I couldn’t make it out on the circuit.
“Well, laughs on you, ain’t it,” I grumble, reaching out for another smoke.
I might be crawling back, but it damn sure ain’t to beg him for shit. I can still see his face when I said my parting words to him.
Over my dead body.
Only it’s not my dead body, it’s his.
The thing I’m struggling with the most, though, is the deep regret that’s filled me since I found out he died. And fuck if that doesn’t piss me off more, because if I was honest with myself, I would know that it isn’t the loss of my career that has been eating away at me. Instead, all I can focus on is the fact that, even at my peak, I wasn’t good enough for him to be proud of me.
No matter what, the silence from him over the years said it all. He couldn’t give two fucks what I accomplished out there on the circuit.
It took me a long time to realize that I had been pushing myself for so long to prove to him I was worthy, but even when I fucking knew it wasn’t worth it, something inside me still wanted to matter to Buford Davis.
All those lost dreams and unmet goals will die right along with the little piece of hope that I’ve been carrying around for years, unknowingly, but fuck if that little piece didn’t make itself known in the past few days.
So, like it or not, with no career left and the summons from home that I couldn’t ignore, I’m headed back to Pine Oak. A town that I always feared would suck me back in. The same town that is now the only future I can see in front of me, since the dreams I left to chase are just as dead as the man that drove me from my hometown in the first place.
Irony, ain’t you just a bitch.
Ten Years Ago
I should have known she would be here. Hell, if I’m honest with myself, I came here because I knew she would be. Right or wrong, I can’t help the pull I get when it comes to Leighton. She’s the only thing that can calm me when I feel like I’m spiraling out of control and fuck it’s so selfish and unfair of me to put that kind of unspoken pressure between us—especially now.
My heavy booted feet take me from the wood edge and into the clearing at what I like to think of as our pasture. The flowers are blooming bright this time of year, the bluebonnets that her mama loves so much surround her as she lays gazing up into the blue cloudless sky.
She looks like an angel.
Even from the distance between us I can tell she’s upset. Leighton is always happy, it’s something that used to annoy the hell out of me, but in the same breath, it was something that calmed me in the oddest ways.
When I decided I was leaving Pine Oak—leaving her—I knew that I would mourn that part of her. I didn’t understand it at first, but it’s also a big part of why I know I have to break away clean. The feelings that I’ve come to realize are a lot bigger than she’s ready for—I’m ready for—aren’t something I can deal with. Not when escaping this town—my father—is right within my grasp.
“Hey, you!” Leighton says with a smile, lifting up on her elbows and turning her head in the direction that I’m trudging through the flowers, careful not to harm any of them on my path to her.
I’m silent as I drop to my ass on the blanket next to her. I can feel her eyes on me, but I focus my attention on the fields around us. There’s a slight breeze, the flowers blowing and flowing in the gentle flow of air.
“What’s on your mind, Mav?”
“Nothin’, Leigh,” I mumble, my mind back at the ranch and the hateful words that my father threw at me when I told him I wouldn’t be changing my mind and sticking around. That was before he threw his full bottle of beer at the back of my head. Thank God I had just taken off my Stetson. If he had ruined this hat—the one that meant a whole hell of a lot—I probably would have killed him.
“That’s a whole lot of nothin’ to be frowning about, cowboy,” she jokes, reaching out one dainty hand to grip my wrist in a stronger hold than she should be capable of. “Talk to me, Maverick. You wouldn’t have come out here if you wanted silence.”
“Just got in a fight with my dad, it’s nothin’ new, Leigh.”
She makes a noise in the back of her throat and I look over to her, her gaze hard and angry. “About you leaving?”
I nod. Her anger isn’t something I’m used to, but on the rare occasion that she knows I got into it with my dad, it’s something she has no trouble showing me.
“You know, he isn’t the only one that doesn’t want you to leave, but he’s the only one that wants it for the wrong reasons. I know Clay and Quinn want you here, but like me, they know you’re meant for greatness. Don’t let his options on the matter sway you, Maverick. One day, years from now, you’re going to look back at the moment and
know that, regardless of what he said, you did the right thing. Even if I wish you weren’t leaving.”
She adds the last almost as an afterthought, her eyes rounding the second the words slip through her mouth and I know she didn’t mean to say them out loud. I’m not stupid, I know she’s had a crush on me for years, but I always knew this moment would come—me leaving—just as certain as I was that Pine Oak was the place Leighton never wanted to leave. She’s always wanted to stay here. To grow old and raise her own family on the land her family has owned for decades.
And it doesn’t matter one lick that if I close my eyes and think about that future, I could see myself right next to her if I stick around here—the same town that my father’s nasty words can reach me—I know it will kill me quick.
“I leave in a week, Leigh,” I mumble, twisting the arm that she’s still holding and shifting slightly so that our hands are linked tight. “I leave in a week and I honestly don’t think I’ll ever come back. You know that right?”
She blinks a few times, clearing the moisture that had started to gather, not letting the tears fall. “I know,” she whispers, looking down at our hands and giving a squeeze. “I’m going to miss you, Maverick.”
“I’m gonna miss you too,” I tell her, honesty dripping from each word.
Then, as if my mind had given my consciousness a giant middle finger, I let go of her hand, lace my fingers through her hair, and pull her lips to mine. I feel her braces press against my closed lips at the same second her squeak of shock fills the air around us. I ignore it all and
open my mouth, using my tongue to coax her own. She follows without delay and before I know it, I’m panting with my forehead against hers and her swollen lips just a breath away from mine.
Those tears that she had done so well at keeping at bay fall in slow succession now and I know that kiss managed only to fill her with a little hope when I had done so well to make sure that never took root.
Without a word, I get up and stomp back to the woods, taking me from my heaven and back to my hell.
One more week.
One more week and I’m free.
I’m just not sure now if I’m really going to be escaping or running into another prison—one that keeps me from the peace that only Leighton can give me.