Leah was awake. Again. She hadn't had a full night's sleep since the accident. The cycle repeated itself each night. A sad rhythm of fitful sleep and frustrated waking. Tonight there was a break in her routine. She had been counting on the small stretch of sleep from one to four. In the past, those few hours had been enough to get her through the next day, but tonight she wouldn’t get the luxury.
At exactly 3 o’clock the knocking began. Leah woke with a start, her heart beating fast and sweat soaking through her cotton pajamas. At first the knocking was light like fingernails tapping impatiently on a desk. By the time Leah untangled herself from the sheet the knocking had become the distinct sound of knuckles on wood. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and forced herself to rise. She walked down the hallway and into the den, her slippers shuffling on the hardwood floors. At the front window she parted the red drapes and peeked through the blinds, careful to move just one slat.
Leah was surprised that the loud knocking wasn't coming from her door. It was coming from the door of the apartment next to hers. Leah could just make out a man's silhouette. He was tall, about 6' 8". She could see the shape of a cowboy hat, a long neck, muscular arms hanging carelessly at his side, tight fitting wranglers, and a pair of worn boots. She watched him ball his fist and pound on her neighbor's door. Leah's heartbeat seemed to mimic the rhythm of the knocking. Sagging his shoulders in frustration, the man stopped knocking and turned around. He swept his gaze across the courtyard and leaned forward onto the thin black railing. Leah quickly let the blinds fall back into place, worried that he might see her spying. She listened. She heard the sound of boots on concrete. Her curiosity overwhelming her fear, she peeked through the slats again.
He was pacing between her neighbor's door and her own. When he came into the soft glow of her porch light she could finally see his face. Leah gasped. She knew that face. How many times had she longed to look into those deep brown eyes? Seeing the small cleft in his square chin, she remembered planting little kisses there. She would crawl into bed with him and begin to kiss his forehead, following the line down his nose, skipping his lips and landing right on his chin. He would smile, open his eyes, and tilt his head down to touch her lips with his.
He had given up on pacing and started knocking on the neighbor's door again. Leah wrestled with the fear that this was all a hallucination. How could he be standing on the balcony? She asked herself. She struggled with the idea that he was just a mirage, an oasis in the desert that disappears as you approach. Leah squeezed her eyes closed, sure that if this wasn't real he would be gone when she opened them.
Her mind was racing, filling up with all the things she wanted to say, but never had the chance. He was gone so suddenly. No one had expected it. Everyone had bought into his invincibility. He had been so sure, so confident, that he seemed immortal. He was always the first to jump; the first to try something new. In the brief three years that Leah and Ian had been married, he had tried his hand at extreme fighting, base jumping, street luge, and finally bull riding. At the beginning of each new phase Leah would feel the worry creeping in, but when she saw Ian's sly grin all her doubts would vanish. It was hard not to catch his infectious confidence.
Now Leah wished that she hadn't let her worries go so easily. It had been six months since the accident. Since the angry bull had bucked him off and shoved a sharp horn straight through his stomach. It happened so quickly. One second Ian was straddling the bull's back, one arm high over head and the other hand gloved and gripping the rope. The next second he was speared on the bull's right horn. The bull had continued to buck wildly around the arena, flinging Ian's body like a ragdoll, blood spraying into the air and muddying the dirt. Leah couldn’t watch, but she couldn't look away either. It seemed like an eternity passed before they were able to stop the bull’s rampage. When the bull finally succumbed to a tranquilizer the paramedics rushed into the arena and knelt next to Ian's body. The crowd had begun to exit the arena, but Leah couldn't move. She knew he was dead. She could feel it. One of the rodeo officials had sought Leah out in the stands. She had taken his hand and followed him, zombie-like. When they had arrived at the med station the EMT had pulled back the white sheet to reveal Ian's motionless face. His eyes were open and Leah had stared at them until she felt as if she were drowning in their dark pools.
Leah slowly opened her eyes and peered through the window. He was still there, pounding on her neighbor's door. She couldn't wait any longer. Leah rounded the leather loveseat and hurried to unlatch the chain on the front door. She swung the door open and stepped out onto the balcony. Ian continued his knocking. Surprised at his lack of reaction, Leah slowly walked across the balcony, her slippers scraping the rough concrete. As she approached he sagged his shoulders again and turned around to face the courtyard. Leah stopped a few steps from him and waited. He didn't seem to notice her presence. Leah reached out her hand, eager to touch the soft brown hair at the base of his neck, but before she could he turned. He took a step in Leah's direction. Leah smiled, expecting a familiar embrace. Instead Ian walked right through her. It was an unearthly feeling, like a strong gust of wind threatening to knock her over. She steadied herself and turned around. He was gone. She scanned the balcony and the courtyard. She hurried down the staircase, followed the building around the corner, and ran into the parking lot. There was no sign of him. He was gone.
Leah walked back to her apartment, her legs heavy on the staircase. In the early morning, the mockingbirds were already calling. She sat down on the top stair and rested her head in her hands. Gazing at the fading stars, she sent up a wish.