Forty-Two Minutes

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Chapter Ten


My hands are shaking as I knock on Lexy's door. I thought I had dealt with my pain, made peace with his memory, and my past. The flashbacks, nightmares, and terrifying sound of my father's voice don't haunt me every night like they used to.

But the emotions rising up in me are raw and make me feel very young and frightened. I feel as if he is stalking me. Was he always here just waiting? Do ghosts ever really die? I thought I had laid him to rest years ago.

I know this won't be an easy conversation. I very much understand the places I will have to go back to, the violence I will have to remember, the terror and trauma I will have to speak of. I will have to tell my niece about the hell that happened here.

"Come in."

My chest tightens at the sound of Lexy's voice. Gathering my strength, I open the door, poke my head inside. "Good morning, sweetheart." I manage to smile at her as I step inside. It's still such a shock to see her; a happy, sweet shock. In my hand is a cup of coffee and under my arm are some photo albums. "I brought you up some coffee. Cream and two sugars, right?"

Lexy smiled sleepily. "Right." She pushed herself up in bed, propped the pillows behind her. She'd left the window open which is a necessity in the sweltering southern summers. The heat gets trapped up in these rooms, especially later in the day. I'll have to remember to bring a fan in for her.

The early morning air drifting in smells of everything I recognize and helps soothe my frazzled thoughts. I close the door behind me and walk over to the bed, hand her the mug.

"Thank you," she says and takes the cup of coffee. She brings it to her lips, sips. "It's really good."

"Be sure and let Ben know. He's our coffee master around here." I sit on the edge of the bed, nervously smooth my grandmother Rose's quilt. I keep the albums on my lap. I try to gauge her mood, her expression. She looks tired, pale. Lost. My heart aches for her. "I wanted to check and see how you were doing. You were exhausted yesterday so we didn't get much time to talk."

She looks at me with eyes that remind me painfully of my sister. "I'm okay," she says, pulling her hand through her hair. "Just still trying to believe I'm actually here." She searches my face as if worried about me. "How are you? I know it was a surprise to have me show up like this." She says it as if she's apologizing.

"A very nice surprise," I reassure her. I smile as she does, feeling more comfortable.

She sips again and looks at me. I feel as if her eyes are trying to penetrate my every thought and I pray we are both ready for what she will find. "Can I ask you something?"

"Of course," I answer, even as I feel myself bracing.

"You've been writing to us for years. How did you even know where we were if you and my mom don't speak?"

I place the two photo albums on the bed between us. "It took a while. Your mama wasn't easy to find. I'm pretty sure she planned it that way. But a few months after she left, I received a blank postcard with a picture of the Hollywood sign on the front. I knew it was from her. I started with the yellow pages but didn't have much luck since she wasn't listed. It wasn't until she married your dad that I was able to track her down. I found her through his law firm. When he made partner, it was published in the monthly newsletter, along with a picture of the two of them. I looked up your dad and finally got their home address. I started writing to her that very day. I never knew if she was getting the letters, but none of them ever got returned to me, so all I could do was hope they were reaching her."

"They did. She saved every single one you ever wrote her."

My throat tightens. "I'm so glad to hear that."

"How did you know about me?"

"I didn't know much about you when you were younger, but these days you can find out anything you want about pretty much anybody. Especially with the invention of social media. I found you on Facebook a few years ago."

She smiles. "I looked for you on there, too," she admits.

"You did?" I ask, surprised and pleased.

She nods. "After I found the letters. I also looked up your rescue foundation for the horses. I think it's great what you and Ben do out here."

"Thanks. We're pretty proud of it." Realizing all I've told her, I let out a nervous laugh. "I can only imagine what you think of me." Embarrassed, I shake my head. "I must sound crazy."

She shakes her head. "I don't think you do. I'm glad you didn't give up on us," she says softly. "You sound like you really miss her."

"I do. All the time. Not one day has gone by that I haven't thought about her and wondered how she is, how her life has turned out. If she's happy." I notice that Lexy falls instantly quiet, and won't look at me. The skin on the back of my neck prickles as my fears are confirmed. I'm not the only one carrying dark secrets. "I know you must have a lot of questions for me. Nick told me about finding you on the porch last night." I pick up one of the photo albums. "I thought you might like to see some pictures of our family and your mama and I growing up."

Her eyes are suddenly razor-sharp and aware. It was more than just curiosity, I realize. The girl is on a mission.

I open up the front cover. Lexy sets her coffee cup on the nightstand and then leans forward, searching intently for answers.

The first photo is a yellowed tintype of a young man, no more than twenty years of age, stoic and unsmiling, in old worn overalls, the brass buttons glinting in the sun. He's in an open, empty field where the barn now stands. A wooden wagon, loaded up with lumber and supplies is next to him. "This is your great, great grandfather, Beau Montgomery. And this," I point to the photo of a woman with her hair wrapped up in a prim and proper bun, wearing a high collared blouse and full skirt standing on the same porch where Lexy had been the night before, "is your great, great grandmother, Adelaide Montgomery. Beau married Adelaide after the war ended and they settled on this land. Built this very house with their own two hands."

We flip through black and white images of the land as it was being settled on and built into the ranch it was today. Not much had changed on it over the years. I point to a grainy photo of a man wearing a crisp white linen shirt and chaps, pointy cowboy boots with spurs sticking proudly out of the sides. A huge, ornately decorated belt buckle was at his waist, a large rimmed cowboy hat on top of his head. He was standing under an oak tree holding the reigns to a beautiful stallion.

"This is your great grandfather, Cade Montgomery. He was the local horse whisperer and was a legend around these parts. Everyone knew about him. Was even in the papers. Could make a horse dance simply with a nod of his head."

Lexy looks fascinated. "Really?"

"Yes. People would come for miles around to watch him work with the horses."

On the next page is a photo of Rose Montgomery. She was wearing a glamorous fringed dress and was standing in front of a microphone, her head thrown back, eyes closed, arms flung wide, as she performed on a stage. I notice how Lexy stares at the photo a little longer than the others. "Your great Grandmother Rose was a blues singer out in Memphis back in the twenties. We still have some recordings of her up in the attic. I'll try to find them for you." I glance at Lexy's guitar on the bed. "Do you sing?"

She blushes, nods shyly. "A little."

"I'd love to hear you sometime. Maybe you get it from her."

Lexy seems to like that. I notice her eyes light up as she smiles down at the photo. "Maybe."

"Your mama also sings. She has a beautiful voice. She used to sing to me all the time when we were little." She'd held my hand and sang softly under the covers to make my nightmares go away.

"She doesn't sing anymore," Lexy says sadly.

The photos begin to come into color as the years go by and times changed. When I turn the page, I feel Lexy go still and hear her quiet gasp as she sees my parent's wedding photo. She stares intently down into the faces of Ray and Lily Mason, searching for connection, revelation, and answers. "You look a lot like your mom," she says, glancing up at me.

"I've heard that," I say, fondly. "Thank you." I have always felt honored to be compared to her. My mom was the most beautiful woman in the world to me.

"My mom looks like her dad." I notice how intensely Lexy stares at her grandparents. "They seem so normal," she whispers, frowning. I can sense her confusion as she tries to make the puzzle pieces fit. I do not doubt that if she could reach through the photo, and time itself, she would do it.

Lexy changed her focus to the photo on the next page, one of Victoria and I perched on the fence near the barn wearing our Sunday dresses. I was six, Victoria nine. Our clothes were handmade as we didn't have the money for store-bought ones.

Lexy gently traces her fingertip over her mother's face and I realize how much she loves and misses her. "She was sad even back then," she says, as she studies Victoria's vacant, dull expression. "You both were. Neither of you is smiling in any of these pictures. It's like you're not even there. Like you're both trying to be invisible."

"We were," I admit, wincing at how true that statement is.

Her frustration continues to build as she flips through the album. I feel the edge and scrape of it vibrating on the air around her. The photos tell a story, but not the whole truth.

When she gets to the end, she looks up at me, her eyes dark, and full of questions. "What happened to her here? Why did she leave?"

How do I do this? I wonder helplessly. I'm not ready. My throat feels choked and hot. It's hard to push the words out. "She had to, sweetheart." My voice sounds hoarse, strained. "It wasn't safe for her. Daddy was an alcoholic and he was mean when he was drunk. He was mean when he wasn't, too. Took out most of his anger on our mama and Victoria. He left me alone, I was young enough that he ignored me most of the time. But, something about Victoria ate at him wrong. I don't know what it was, but he came at her just for waking up in the morning."

Lexy has gone very still and pale, her eyes wide and dark and glazed with shock. I can't tell if she's fully breathing. I'm not even sure I still am. "He would hit her?" The question comes out as a raspy whisper.

Hit her. Beat her until she was bloody and bruised all over. Kicked her so hard she threw up. I can't say it. I can't tell this innocent girl how her mama was dragged across the floor by her hair in this very room while I cowered in the corner, sobbing and begging him to stop.

I clench my hands tightly in my lap, so tight my nails are digging into my palms. Strange how the pain helps. "Yes," is all I manage to get out. It's such a small word for the gravity of what happened. I can't feel my lips moving. My chest is tight from trying to breathe. Why does remembering have to hurt this much? It's as if I'm four years old all over again. "Anything would set him off. The television being on too loud, the screen door banging, his dinner not being warm enough. When he would get into one of his rages, we would run and hide under the bed or in the closet. Under the porch. We'd stay under there for hours waiting for him to pass out."

She stares at me as realization dawns. "That's why your names are carved on the post."

I wince. It feels like I'm still there. Sweaty and starving and so scared. All I can do is nod.

"Why didn't your mom take you both and leave?"

"She couldn't. We had nowhere to go. We had no money. He was the one who worked when he could keep a job long enough to bring home a paycheck. He'd either hide it or spend it all on whiskey and gambling. The little allowance he did give her, she spent to buy us food and clothes. And back in those days, you just didn't leave, no matter how bad it was."

"So, how did my mom finally get out?"

"She waited until she was old enough for him to not be able to stop her. The day she turned eighteen, she ran. He blacked out and she was gone. It was just in time, too. Their fights had been getting worse, a couple of times I had to call the police. It was at the point that if one of them didn't leave they were going to kill each other."

"What happened to you after she was gone? Did he hurt you?"

"Not in the same way. He didn't pay much attention to me at all, would look right through me. He hardly ever spoke to me." I stare dully at the floor, remembering those lonely, indifferent silences, the blank expression in his eyes as if I didn't even exist and was insignificant. I guess to him, I was. "I can't even remember the last words he said to me. He died about fifteen years ago from cancer."

"Why didn't you leave, too?"

I feel myself sinking, the suffocating weight of my past trying to pull me down. He's gone, I remind myself. He can't hurt me anymore. But it feels as if he's still here, staggering up the stairs toward our bedroom. I swear there are nights I can hear his boots thudding over the floor as if he still haunts this place.

Fighting the urge to hide, to run for cover, I keep my eyes on Lexy, needing something to anchor me in the present. "I couldn't leave my mama. She still needed help with this place and daddy was barely around and when he was, he was so drunk he couldn't get up off the couch. So to help make ends meet, I got a job over at the local feed store. That's where I met Ben. His family owned it and we started dating. Been together ever since."

"You seem really happy together."

I smile tenderly. "We are. He's a good man. I wouldn't have made it without him."

"You don't have any kids?"

My smile fades. Even after all this time, my heart still breaks at the question. It never gets easier to answer. "No honey, we don't. I've had two miscarriages. One at six weeks, the other at fourteen." I still think of how old they would be now, wonder what they would have looked like, what they would have become. What it would have felt like to hold them. I'll never know. I still remember when their birthdays would have been, how old they would be today. "We've been trying, but so far..." I trail off, shrug helplessly.

She takes my hand. "I'm so sorry, Becca."

"This is just how it is," I say softly. "It doesn't ever really go away, but it helps to have this ranch and the horses. And Nick is like family to us." I reach over and brush her hair off her shoulder, manage a sad smile. "And, now, you're here."

She leaves her hand in mine to comfort both of us. "Is it hard for you to stay here with everything that's happened?"

"Some days are harder than others," I admit. "There's so much of him still in this house. But, I knew if I left, I wouldn't ever be able to face what he did to us. This land has been in our family for over a hundred and fifty years. Before our mama died and left us the ranch, she made me promise I would make this place a home again. He can't ever take away what Ben and I have built here. I won't let him."

Lexy looks at me, her eyes clear and level on mine. "You're still waiting for my mom to come back, aren't you?"

She's the kind of person you tell things like this to, I realize. She has an unusual empathy for someone so young. And you don't dare lie to her. She'd see right through you. Victoria used to look at me the same way.

"Yes," I say plainly, knowing I can, that she'll accept and understand it. "I have always hoped she will." I look back to the photo of Victoria and me sitting on the fence, trace my finger over the two little girls that we used to be. We'd told each other everything back then. All our secrets were whispered only to one another. "You're the same age she was when she left," I murmur, absorbing the ironic, sad reality of that. We've come full circle, I realize. "I haven't seen her in twenty-five years." Victoria's deliberate silence, the total abandonment of it, still continues to haunt me. "How is she?" I finally let myself ask because I can't hold it in any longer.

When I look back at Lexy, I'm shocked at how dead and dark her eyes are.

"She's drunk," she says, her voice dull and hopeless.

I feel all the breath and strength leave my body. "What?"

"She drinks all the time. I can't get her to stop." Her words spill out fast, like a tidal wave, and I wonder if it's so she doesn't change her mind. I can feel her relief that she is finally able to let the truth be known. "She blacks out for days and then when she finally wakes up, she just does it all over again. I've begged her to get help, but she won't. I'm so scared she's going to kill herself." Her breath is coming in short gasps. "I didn't know you wanted us in your life. When I found your letters, when I found out she'd lied to me this whole time, I had to come find you. I needed to know the truth."

I can't seem to get air in. My lungs burn as if I've been running and running for miles. "Oh honey, I'm so sorry." I instinctively grip tighter to her hand. "Please believe me when I tell you that I have always wanted to know you. I never once gave up hoping that one of you would come find me."

Lexy's eyes fill with tears, her face crumples. "She wouldn't let me ask about you. She said you wanted nothing to do with us. Anytime I brought up anything to do with her past or her family it would just make things so much worse." She clumsily wipes at her cheeks with the back of her hand, but more just kept coming. "She would totally lose control and so I stopped asking." Her eyes meet mine, desperate and devastated. Her pain is like a physical punch to the gut. "I'm so sorry that I believed her. I'm sorry I didn't come before now. I was terrified of what she would do to herself. I don't even know if she's alive right now. And it's all my fault."

"Oh, sweetheart. None of this is your fault." I pull her into my arms, feel her body trembling as she finally lets herself fall apart. She holds on tight to me, as a frightened child would. I wonder the last time someone held her like this. I feel the heat of her tears and ragged breath against my neck. "I don't blame you, Lexy. I grew up in it. I understand all too well doing what you have to so you can survive." I stroke her hair, rock her slowly back and forth. "You did the only thing you could do. You're safe now."

I continue to murmur softly, whispering promises and reassurances, as she sobs. This has been coming for years, I realize, so much fear and pain pent up inside this poor, young girl. Her tears pour out from that shattered place inside her broken heart. After a long while, she falls quiets, and stops shuddering. I keep her close, holding her until I feel her breathing slowly begin to steady and match mine.

When she pulls back, I gently move the curls back from her damp face. Her eyes are drenched and gut-wrenchingly hopeless as they meet mine. Her lips are swollen, cheeks flushed. "I'm really scared about what's going to happen to her," she whispers, her breath hiccuping.

"I know you are. I am too." I hand her a kleenex. "Where's your dad? How does he deal with everything?"

"He doesn't," she answers. She says it with the weary resignation of someone used to being let down. "He works all the time and is barely home." She wipes at her tears. "When he is there, they get into these horrible fights and my mom locks herself back in her room, and won't come out."

Swallowing the hot rush of anger, I make myself hold back bitter words. It won't do Lexy any good. "So you were on your own out there?"

Lexy nods, looking lost and vulnerable and so much like her mother it makes me want to weep.

I squeeze her hand. "You don't have to be alone anymore." Neither of us does.

As Lexy wipes the last of the tears from her cheeks, she notices the locket around my neck, reaches out to look at it more closely. "My mom has the other half of this heart."

Managing a bittersweet smile, I protectively wrap my fingers around the locket. "Your great grandmother Rose gave us each one when we were little."

"I knew I recognized it yesterday. She still wears it."

Stunned, I stare at her. "She does?"

Lexy nods. "She never takes it off."

Lexy could have given me no greater gift. My sister has never forgotten. She's remembered me, all our promises, our secret pacts, our whispered, frightened pinky swears. Maybe she even misses me, needs me. I know how much I still miss her. I allow myself to hope in a way I haven't in years. "Thank you for telling me that," I say, my voice trembling from the strength of the emotions. "It means a lot to me."

Lexy looks down at the photo album again. She picks it up and, as she does, a folded-up newspaper article flutters out from the back cover onto the bed. When she unfolds it, her eyes widen in surprise as she stares at Nick and a pretty blonde smiling on the front page. She looks up at me. "Becca, what is this?"

My heart sinks as Nick's pain, a pain he never, ever talks about, is laid bare right in front of us with no way to hide it. "I'd forgotten I'd put that in there." I try to pull it from her reach but she's already reading it.

Next to their high school graduation photo is a grotesque image of the car Nick and Megan had been driving that horrible night. It was demolished beyond recognition. I'm silent as Lexy reads more, her body going completely still as she finishes the story. I know every word of it. High school sweethearts, ripped apart by a tragic car accident. They had just graduated and were planning on going off to college together. But on the night of Megan's eighteenth birthday, on their way back from the family celebration, the unthinkable happened.

Lexy's eyes are wide and full of horror as they meet mine. "She died? Nick's girlfriend died?"

As my breath constricts, I can only nod. "They hit a tree. It was raining and the roads were too wet for either driver to stop. Nick tried to get out of the way of the other car but swerved out of control. Megan was killed instantly."

"She was only eighteen. That's my age." Lexy looked closer at the girl in the photo. "She was beautiful."

"Yes, she was. And so sweet. You would've liked her. Nick adored her. They met when they were freshmen in high school. They were together for four years."

Lexy shifts her gaze to Nick. He's young and handsome and smiling straight at the camera. "He was so happy back then. He looks totally different now."

"He's very different," I agree, trying to remember the last time I saw him smile, much less laugh. It's been years. He's almost unrecognizable. "Losing her has completely changed him."

"How could it not?" Lexy shakes her head, sorrow, and grief in her eyes. "You never get over something like that. Poor Nick." She notices the date on the article. "This was almost three years ago. That's not very long. No wonder he's so sad all the time." She looks up at me. "How did he end up here?"

"Ben and Nick have been friends since they were kids. They grew up across the road from each other. Their families go way back. Nick is like a younger brother to him. When we found out about the accident, we asked Nick to come stay with us. He was really depressed and we were worried about him. We needed the help and Nick needed somewhere to fall apart and start healing. The local news also wouldn't leave him alone and this ranch was a good place to hide out. He's been here ever since. I honestly don't know what we would do without him."

Lexy pulled her knees up, wrapped her arms around them. "It seems like he wouldn't know what to do without you guys either." She rested her chin on her knees as she watched me. "I guess this ranch is what you wanted it to be after all."

"What do you mean?"

"It's a safe place for everyone who comes here."

I stare at her as the truth of what she said sinks in. I think about the hundreds of abandoned, abused horses we've rescued, of Nick seeking solace and privacy, and now of Lexy looking for answers and a quiet place to rest and heal. "I hope so," I murmur, smiling thoughtfully.

Out of respect, Lexy carefully folds the article, holds it out to me. "I won't say anything."

I smile, touched by how thoughtful and sensitive she is. I'm amazed she's been able to hold onto a shred of goodness in an environment where she's surrounded by fear and addiction. I glance around my childhood bedroom, the four walls still holding a past I feel helpless to change. So many ghosts still live here, and none of them are at rest. I look back to my niece who is expecting me to know the answers. "I'm sorry I can't do more for you."

"You've already done everything," Lexy reassures me. "Thank you for telling me the truth and for waiting for me."

Feeling tender and maternal towards her, I lightly touch her cheek. "I'm really glad you're here, Lexy."

"Me, too."

I drop my hand back into my lap. "Would you like to come down and see the horses? I'd love to show you around this place."

She picks up the other album I'd left on the bed. "Do you mind if I just look at some more pictures for a little while?"

"Not at all. I've got plenty more where those came from. I'll bring them down from the attic for you." I get to my feet, sensing she wants to be alone. She needs some time to process all I've told her, to let it sink in. I look down at her, at this sweet girl who I've never known, but have loved simply because she was my sister's daughter. "I'm right downstairs if you need me."

I hold the newspaper article close to my heart as I walk out of the room. It isn't until I close the door behind me that I finally let my tears fall. For my sister, for me, for Lexy, for Nick. We've all lost so much here, a long history of tragedy and heartache. I walk up the stairs to the attic so I can be alone and let myself go.
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