Forty-Two Minutes

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Chapter Twelve

LEXY

For the last two days, I've barely come out of my room. I've poured over any small detail I could get on the Montgomery family line; devouring photos, birth certificates, census records, report cards, wedding announcements. Becca had saved every memento in dusty trunks up in the attic.

The last photo album has been scoured and I still am not satisfied. My mind is racing with curiosity and more questions. I had no idea my mom's childhood had been so violent and horrible. I'd had my suspicions, and I've wondered, but without proof, without any answers, I had nothing to go on.

A soft breeze drifts in from the window, rustling papers, and I look out at the acres of green spreading out for miles. I can't remember the last time I felt sunlight and fresh air. I need to get out of the house. I can't think anymore. I've been inside too long. I've been in my head too long. I've needed time to sort through the devastation.

Pushing myself off the bed, I arch backward, stretching, rub the sore muscles in my neck. I'm stiff from sitting in the same position for hours. After days of spending so much time with people from the past, I am ready to explore the land and life they left behind. I quickly shower and dress, head downstairs.

As I push open the screen door and step out onto the porch, I have to squint and shade my eyes as they adjust to the afternoon light. The summer air is humid and warm, bringing up the scents of irrigated soil, the sweetness of honeysuckle, and gardenia.

Off towards the back of the house, I hear the horses whinnying and turn towards the sound. A man's voice, Ben's I think, is calling out commands to trot and then slow down and come back to center. His voice is soothing but firm, and I like the sound of it. I can see why Becca feels safe with him.

I remember the way he smiled at her across the table at breakfast the other morning. I've never seen my dad look at my mom like that. I've never seen anyone look at someone like that. I wonder if my dad used to and if my mom would blush the way my aunt did when she caught Ben staring. I wish I knew what it was like when my parents first fell in love, or if they ever did. After all this time, is there anything left in them for each other? For me?

How is everything so normal out here? The world has kept spinning, time has kept going forward. The sky and sun seem foreign, unreal, tilted. I don't know what to do with myself now. I don't know how to be away from her. I have no idea who I am without her addiction telling me how long I have to hold my breath before I can let it out again. I am so used to the stress and chaos of taking care of her, I don't know how to function without the fear hanging over me.

Time is so different on the ranch, slow and unhurried and easy. If I were back home, I would be anxiously waiting and worrying and listening for her to finally wake up. I would be getting her breakfast ready, moving quietly and carefully through the house because her hangover was always so intense. The slightest noise would cause her to get sick and completely unravel her. I was constantly trying to outrun the monsters that made her drink in the first place. My sole purpose was to try and hide her from the next time they snuck up and grabbed her away from me. Only I could never find them in time and could never figure out how to save her.

My mom had been wrong, I think, wrapping my arms around myself as I look out over the pastures. I don't hate her now that I know. If anything, finding out the truth helps me to understand her better, the fear that drives her, why she does what she does. Part of me desperately wants to run back to her, to tell her how sorry I am and that we will do whatever we can to fix it.

I wonder how she's doing. I haven't talked to her in four days. I'm still obsessively counting down the time. Her texts and calls have stopped. Every second, I have to fight against the panic of what I fear is happening to her. I know all too well what her silence means. She's disappeared into her room and blacked out.

I haven't heard from my dad. He must know I found the letters. Is he home or is he still hiding out at his office? Who is taking care of her if I'm not? Does he know if she's alive? Still breathing? Has he even checked?

The fear is so familiar, thrumming through me like an electric charge under my skin. The guilt tears me up to the point where I can barely breathe past the vicious knots in my stomach. I feel so helpless. I've tried for years to rescue her and have failed at every turn. How do I help her when she doesn't want to be saved? How do I get someone to stop doing something they want and need to do? How do you put someone back together when you are shattered too?

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't put Humpty together again
.

I don't know where the sudden memory came from. I haven't heard that nursery rhyme in years. My mom had read it to me in one of my storybooks once. Feels like forever ago, almost as if I imagined it. I don't know how to put her back together. I never have. Being here is the only way I know how to try and change things. There are more secrets here, more truths to uncover. I have to find them. I have to know. And maybe when I do, I will find all of us.

There is nothing but wide-open space in front of me. I could run for as long as I want and still not reach the end of the horizon. I go down the steps and walk to the back of the house towards the stables.

It's so quiet. That's the hardest thing to get used to out here. I've never liked silence. It's always meant something is wrong. But here, the quiet is hushed and still and safe. I'm in the middle of nowhere, completely tucked away. I have the odd sensation of being able to hide in plain sight and wonder if that's also how my mom felt out here.

There's a narrow dirt path in the grass, one made by the generations of those who have walked here before me. The history of this land is all around me in every worn, creaking board, the rippled windowpanes, each ancient, gnarled tree. I feel the centuries brush up against me everywhere I look.

My great, great grandparents settled on this land and built a life here, leaving a legacy for those of us who followed after them. I think of Beau and Adelaide Montgomery, of Cade and Rose, of Ray and Lily Mason, of Becca and my mom, walking on this same land. These fields have seen war and weddings, tears and laughter, fear and addiction, hell and heaven. And each person who lived and died here, left some part of themselves behind to help me discover my place in our family line.

It's the first time in my life I've felt like I belong to anyone, anywhere. I wish I could have experienced what life was like back then and known the people who came here before me.

The path leads towards the barn and stables. The barn looks exactly like what I always pictured one to look like. I've only seen them in books or movies. It's big and red with a hayloft up top. Wide, thick doors on the front. A rusted iron weathervane in the shape of a running stallion is perched on the roof. A rickety wooden windmill turns lazily nearby. The outbuildings have all been painted a clean, colonial white, same as the main house.

Reaching the door to the stable, I slip in. The pungent smell of grain, hay, and manure are strong. Large overhead fans keep the air constantly moving. I hear someone talking in a low, patient voice. When I get closer I realize it's Nick. He's with one of the horses in the last stall towards the back. I stand a few feet down and watch him, guessing it is one that arrived a few days ago. I remember overhearing Ben mentioning the arrival of a new mare. Nick is talking quietly, as not to startle or scare it.

The horse used to be beautiful, its coat is a deep rich mahogany, but is now mangy with lack of care. I can see sores along her side, her back leg. A deep jagged scar is across her nose and I wonder what happened to her. As Nick moves around her stall, he gets too close to her wounded side. Without warning, the horse cries out, jerks back, and rears up, trying to pull away from Nick, its eyes so wide and frightened, I can see the white around them. Startled, I gasp and back up against the wall, afraid of getting trampled.

Hearing my gasp, Nick looks over sharply and I see his expression cloud over when he realizes it's me. "Stay back," he orders. He doesn't take his hand off the horse, continuing to stroke her neck and talk softly. The horse snorts noisily, a warning, stomps, paws at the ground in challenge. I wonder if she will hurt him. After a tense minute, she reluctantly settles, although her tail swishes irritably back and forth. Nick waits a few more moments until he's sure she won't charge, and then moves a few steps closer and bends to examine her again. "Good girl," he murmurs, gently stroking her hindquarters. "You're alright."

I watch Nick, fascinated by how gentle he is, how patient. I hadn't expected this tender side of him. He's so closed off and guarded around people. I can feel the horse gradually getting used to him being in her space. The angry, primal fear has left her eyes. Now they are just watchful and aware and taking everything in.

From where I'm standing, I can see how skinny she is, her rib cage protruding painfully, her belly bulging out, every bone in her spine. I feel something stir deep in me. I want to cry. I'm drawn to her and step closer. Nick sends me a dark look, annoyed at having his process invaded. "You shouldn't be in here," he says gruffly, trying to relay the danger of the situation.

I know I should listen, but I can't seem to make myself leave. The battered horse is watching me, her eyes desperate and devastated. It's like looking in a mirror. I see my mom. I see me. I feel a rush of compassion and keep my eyes on her as I take another step towards the stall. "What happened to her?"

Nick doesn't look over at me, but I can feel his frustration that I hadn't left. "She was pushed too far." There's a shelf next to me on the wall. He reaches past me and picks a bottle of saline. I can smell the saddle oil and leather on him, the sweat, the musk of the horse. Heat radiates off his skin. I don't get out of his way. I don't seem to be able to move. We've barely seen each other over the last few days. Only once at dinner. I haven't had much of an appetite. The last time we talked was the night on the porch when he heard me sing. I hadn't realized until now how much I have thought about him, how badly I've wanted to talk to him again. He's the only one who knows my secret. "If you're going to be in here you better stay back."

"I'll be careful," I promise. I'm close enough that I have to look up to meet the horse's eyes. "Why would someone do this to her?"

"Winning was more important, I guess," he mutters and I can hear the disgust and anger in his voice. He opens the bottle of saline. "Don't get too close. She's not going to like this."

Obediently, I move away from the stall door in case she breaks free or charges and watch as he washes out Glory's sores. The horse whips her head around and snaps, snorts. "I know. I know," Nick soothes. "We're almost done."

I notice a bucket of apples next to the supplies on the shelf. They are cut into bite-size pieces. I want to do something to help her not have to feel what is happening to her, to try and make one thing easier for her. Even if it's only for a second.

I reach in, pick up one. The horse tracks my movements and tentatively leans her head towards me. Remembering how Nick fed her, I carefully hold the apple out for her, palm up. She hesitates, sniffs. Holding very still, I don't take my hand back and she cautiously bends her head. I can't help smiling as she licks my hand and swallows the apples. Her tongue is surprisingly smooth. I hadn't thought it would be.

I don't back away and stand quietly where I am, letting her get used to me. We gauge each other. She's enormous and intimidating. She towers over me and I can tell that at one point she must have been a gorgeous racehorse. I'm in awe of her size and strength and power. A few heartbeats pass with neither of us moving and then the horse slowly lowers her head, thrilling me. I reach up and let her smell my hand and she presses her nose against my palm for me to stroke her. "Hi sweet girl," I whisper.

"What're you doing?" Nick snaps at me, his hand on the horse's side just in case. "I told you to stay-" he trails off as he realizes the horse is letting me pet her. He looks both stunned and amazed. He moves closer. "Be careful," he warns, watching to make sure he doesn't need to step between us. "Go slow with her."

I keep my movements soft, gentle, being mindful of her gashes. "What's her name?"

"Glory," Nick answers, keeping a hawk-eye on us as he begins to gently work out the knots in the horse's matted mane. "Not that she looks much like it right now."

I look up into Glory's soulful, sad eyes. They seem to be pleading with me to help her. "Poor girl. I'm so sorry you were hurt." This isn't at all what she wanted her life to be. "She just wants to know she's safe." I understand the need painfully well. Nick doesn't say anything to that. "Will she make it?"

It takes Nick a while to answer like he was in his own world and reluctantly has to pull himself out. "Hopefully. Still too soon to tell."

Glory pushes at my shoulder with her nose, searching for more apples. I can't help laughing when she nuzzles my hair. When I turn to get another piece, I catch Nick watching me. His eyes are dark, frustrated. I feel my face go hot. "Is it okay to give her these?"

He seems to catch himself staring and frowns at me as if it's my fault, looks away. "Yeah," he mutters, and moves around to the other side of the horse so I can't see him as well. I can't tell if it was on purpose. "Not too many though."

I stay quiet and watch him, trying to understand him. He's different when he's with the horses, I notice. Tender and protective and kind. He feels safe with them. He trusts them. Even as Glory tests him, pushes at him, charges at him, he just takes it and keeps working on breaking through to her. He won't ever give up on them.

"You're really good with her," I tell him. "She'll believe it's not her fault soon."

He pauses then and glances over the top of Glory's back at me, an odd expression on his face. He seems surprised and looks like he's about to ask me something, but then changes his mind. Instead, he ducks his head back down where I can't see him and says, "I've got to take her out and walk her so that back leg doesn't freeze up."

He comes up to the stall door and reaches across me for the bridle and reigns. He's close enough that I notice the scar above his right eyebrow and think of the car crash, of Megan, of the tragic and terrible way he lost her. Becca was right, I think, picturing him young and smiling and in love in the newspaper article. He's completely different now. His grief has made him a stranger. I wonder if he even remembers who he used to be anymore.

I want to ask him how he deals with it every day if he's ever managed to forgive himself if there's ever one second that he isn't hunted down by the guilt. The words burn in the back of my throat. I'm so desperate for someone who understands, who knows what it's like to carry this kind of devastation and fear all the time. Where is it all supposed to go?

He catches me looking at him and everything I'm thinking must be written all over my face because he suddenly goes very still. His eyes narrow and I notice a muscle in his jaw clench. He knows I know.

"You need to step back," he finally says and I blink, shocked by the cold sound of his voice.

I realize I'm just standing there staring at him. I flush and look away, embarrassed. I hear the warning in his voice, understand completely that he means step away from him, his past, his pain. Her.

I move to the side so he can get out of the stall and let him put the wall back between us. As he leads Glory into the daylight, I wonder if he knows the barriers he's put around him aren't hiding him at all.
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