Fear of Forgiveness
I flicked the brim of my hat and watched a cloud of fine dust float on the hot, stagnant air. Selena coughed next to me, her glare boring into the side of my head. I shrugged and stepped forward, jamming my Stetson back down on my head with a quick wiggle to adjust the brim.
“Go get ’em, tiger!” Selena called from behind me, her cheesy turn of phrase bringing a reluctant smile to my lips.
No matter what happened, at least I knew she’d stand by me. Did I deserve it? Hell no. I didn’t deserve the clothes on my back, but somehow, someone out there thought I deserved a second chance. And I wasn’t going to let it slip by or let her down.
If I could take back what happened exactly one year ago, I’d do that. I’d have given my last breath to rewind the clock and stop my sister from getting trampled in that stampede. She told me it wasn’t my fault, but every time I looked at her after that, crippled and trapped in that wheelchair, I couldn’t help but think if I’d been there for the round up like I was supposed to be, none of it ever would have happened. Ever since then I’ve been . . . afraid.
“They’re just cows! C’mon. You got this.”
Selena meant well, but her words only seemed to solidify the heavy weight in my gut, dragging my body toward the ground and slowing my momentum. I touched the brim of my cowboy hat and was comforted by the memories trickling into my mind of all the times I wore it, all the times I chased stray cows on winding trails and through heavy brush, all the rodeos and horse training and trail rides.
I closed my eyes and breathed deep, releasing the building tension squeezing across the muscles in my shoulders. I made the last few steps with my eyelids pressed down tight, but when I opened them I wasn’t prepared for what would be there.
Two big doe eyes with strangely long lashes blinked back at me in a lazy, sleepiness as the peach-fuzz covered face wobbled in slow, circular, chewing crunches of hay between flat teeth. The cow’s brown eyes stared at me in the most non-accusatory way, but for some reason I kept hearing this voice in my head saying it was all my fault. That I was selfish and practically a killer. That I’d robbed my sister of her life’s goals, her beautiful life and all her dreams of becoming a barrel racer.
The loathing searing my insides couldn’t have come from those gentle cow eyes, but it might as well have been. Every time I looked at our family’s cattle, that’s all I felt. But the worst part was, I couldn’t bring myself to touch them let alone take responsibility for their care.
Today was the first day in a year that I’d been able to get this close to one of them. I felt insane and stupid for my fear. I knew it was irrational, but the image of my sister’s twisted body covered in blood and muck, and the dark pools near her body dusted in a fine layer of dirt were all I could see. Panic would set in at the sight of a cow, and more than one could get me whimpering.
I was a complete and utter idiotic mess, but Selena had convinced me over time to face my fear. We’d been working on it for over a month and today, on the anniversary of the accident, she convinced me to finally touch a cow.
I swallowed past the lump in my throat and flexed my fingers while the cow just kept on chewing, little strands of half-chewed hay sticking out the side of her mouth.
“It’s not rocket science,” Selena yelled from behind me, much louder than was necessary given the short distance.
“Not rocket science? Really? That’s the best you got?”
“I figured I might as well keep up the cliche train. You know you like it.”
“Not in a million,” I said, grumbling under my breath.
“Look at her. She’s not gonna bite.”
“I am lookin’ at her.” My heart rate sped up just saying the words.
“Well . . . .”
“All right. All right.” I took another deep breath and lifted my hand toward the fence.
The cow took on step closer, her head now stretched over the fence rail in anticipation, probably hoping I’d give her a treat. I hadn’t even thought of that until that second. Maybe it would have made the whole ordeal easier.
“You’re a wuss.”
Her taunt did the trick. I gritted my teeth and laid my hand on the cow’s soft muzzle. At first the feeling of it was lost on me while I worked overtime to overcome the jolt of pure adrenaline that screamed through my muscles to run. But as I fought that urge, I felt the fuzzy skin stretched thin over the cow’s muzzle and the soft press of her responding to my touch. With each second I stayed like that, I sensed the irrationality draining out of me little by little, and soon I could feel the beat of my heart return to normal, all my muscles relaxing and going heavy with wasted energy.
“Hey there, girl,” I said and rubbed her face with both hands, my relief as palpable as the grittiness of dust in the air.
I leaned forward and rested my forehead against hers, knocking my cowboy hat to the ground. A cloud of dirt settled over it on the ground, but I didn’t care. For once in a long while I didn’t feel lost. I didn’t deserve this freedom, but I couldn’t let it go.
I felt a hand rest on my back and raised my teary eyes to glance down at the owner.
“It wasn’t your fault. I never blamed you and neither did Dad. He wasn’t angry at you, and you know if the cancer hadn’t have got him, he’d be here right now, cheering you on. I’m okay and you need to be too.”