I stand next to Nick, feeling anxious and excited as he opens up the pen gate. Patting Glory on her backside, he murmurs encouragement and lets her find her way.
She had already been moved into the main stables a few days before to see how she would handle being around the other horses. She'd adjusted well, and they had not become aggressive or territorial with her. Nick wanted to get her integrated in with the herd. I helped him widen the pen to give the two mares enough room to get used to each other.
He'd put her in with the most gentle and calm of the horses. Ben and Becca had rescued Maddy, a glossy black quarter horse, from a temporary shelter about ten years ago. She'd been one of the thousands that had been a refugee from the hurricanes in Louisiana.
I'm fascinated to watch how they greet one another. I feel like we're eavesdropping on their conversation as they walk towards each other, round their necks, and bend their heads close as if telling each other secrets. My brows come up in surprise when they blow into the other's nostrils. "Why are they doing that?" I ask Nick.
He's close enough to me that our arms touch as we watch their progress. I'm not sure if he realizes it, but a few minutes have passed and he hasn't shifted away. I wonder if he's getting more comfortable and quietly let him lean on me as long as he allows himself to.
He's on the side nearest to the gate in case he needs to intervene, and seems pleased to see it doesn't look like he'll need to. "They're exchanging scents," he tells me, not taking his eyes from the horses. "It's how they get to know each other."
I'm startled when Maddy suddenly lets out a shrieking neigh, the sound bellowing loudly and echoing over the land. Tossing her head, as if motioning for Glory to try and catch her, she turns and gallops across the length of the pen, dust billowing under her hooves. Glory watches for a moment as if she's trying to remember what to do, and if it's safe to, and then follows after her, her hesitant trot quickly turning to a prancing run. They remind me of children rushing out to play after being let out for recess. She almost seems to be smiling, her tail and mane swishing giddily as she matches Maddy's pace.
I'm laughing when my cell phone rings. Thoughtlessly, I pull it out of my back pocket, not even looking at the number. I'm thinking it's probably Becca, not realizing I never, ever should have stopped paying attention. I answer it, not remembering that sooner or later my life would catch up with me and all the consequences I left behind in California. I had forgotten that nothing was really normal or typical about my life. I had forgotten that, for me, there was no such thing.
"Hello?" I say breathlessly, still laughing, as I watch the two horses chasing and teasing each other as best friends would. My heart is full seeing Glory this free.
"Lexy?" My dad's voice comes over the other end. I can barely hear him through the chaos of voices and noise. A sound I don't recognize is blaring in the background. It sounds like carnival screams, but that doesn't make any sense.
I freeze. My laughter instantly dies and fades into thin air. The ground tilts sickeningly beneath me and I have to clutch the rail for balance. "Dad?" Nick looks sharply over at me. We're both so still like marble statues. Even the birds overhead seem to go silent. I know why he's is calling. She's dead. He's going to tell me my mom is dead. I start to tremble. "What's happened to her?"
"We're in the emergency room." I can hear the fear in his voice. I've never heard it before. It terrifies me. "I found her early this morning. She overdosed."
Sirens, I realize, panic curdling like bile in my throat. The sound I hear are sirens. "Is she alive?" My voice rises hysterically. My hand is clenched so tightly on the rail that my knuckles are white. There's a strange taste of copper in my mouth, and I vaguely realize I bit my cheek. I didn't even feel it. "Is she still alive?"
"Yes, but barely. She's not conscious. They are pumping her stomach. The next few hours are critical."
What have I done? What have I done? What have I done? The words beat through my brain like primal drums, loud and violent and accusing. I feel like I'm going to faint or be sick. My ears are ringing. My vision has dimmed and narrowed to where I can see nothing except shades of grey. Everything is spinning as if I have been sucked into a whirlpool and am going under and am about to drown. I close my eyes and try to breathe.
"I'll get on the next flight out there," I hear myself say the words but it doesn't even sound like me. The girl I was a minute ago is gone. I don't know why I'd been foolish enough to think my life could be different, that I could. "Let me know as soon as you hear something."
"Okay. Dad, I-" If he were anyone else I would have told him I loved him, but he isn't anyone else and we've never said it. I don't dare say it now. I don't deserve to. Especially since this whole thing is my fault. "I'll get there as soon as I can."
He gives me the information for the hospital and hangs up, and even when the line is disconnected, I keep the phone pressed against my ear. I don't want to open my eyes. I don't know how to be in this moment even though I've been expecting it for years. It's finally here. My greatest fear has finally happened. And I caused it.
I thought I would know, that I would be able to tell that something was wrong. I was certain I'd have an overwhelming premonition of dread or foreboding, some kind of sixth sense. A dream, nightmare, vision. Something. We'd always been so close. I'd always been careful to match my every move with hers. But, there had been nothing. While I was sleeping, she was trying to kill herself. And I hadn't known.
I reluctantly open my eyes and stare dully at the horses. They seem so far away even though I haven't moved. I stand perfectly and carefully still. If I move, I'll crumble. I'm suddenly so tired. I can't think. I can't seem to do anything. I just want to curl into a ball, close my eyes and go to sleep until all of this is over. I don't even register Nick stepping in front of me.
"Lexy," he says quietly. I don't dare blink or breathe. Keeping his eyes fixed on me, he cautiously takes the phone from my hand, tucks it in his back pocket.
I try to think, to focus. I notice how Nick's face shimmers and ripples at the edges as if I'm looking at him from underwater. I realize I'm cold even though it's well over a hundred degrees outside. I'm shivering from the inside out. My teeth are chattering from fear, shock, trauma. "She's in the hospital," I finally manage. Why can't I feel anything? My entire body is numb. "She overdosed. I almost killed her."
Nick flinches. I think I hear him swear. "No, you didn't." He holds my arms to pull me out of the pit I'm sinking into, to keep me afloat. "Don't say stuff like that. This isn't your fault."
"Yes, it is!" With a strength I didn't know I had, I throw his hands off. "You don't understand!" Adrenaline has kicked in fueled by panic and fear and anger. It's a lethal combination. I direct it all at him. A part of me is grateful to feel it. If I'm angry, I'm not afraid. If it's Nick's fault then at least for this one split second, it isn't mine. I need him to take it from me. "I'm the one that left her even though I knew this would happen. If I had stayed, she wouldn't have done this."
"Stop it." He shakes me a little. "You couldn't have saved her." I must look crazy because from some far-off place in my mind I notice he looks scared for me. I have the delirious urge to burst out laughing. "She still would have gotten here. You didn't make her do anything."
Infuriated, I shove at him. "Yes, I did!" I shout, inches from his face. "I knew she couldn't make it on her own. I knew what it would do to her. I shouldn't have come here. Don't tell me it's not my fault!" I push at him again, harder this time, needing to feel some sort of power in this place of being so helpless. I wish he'd do something, yell at me, push back, anything to make this horrible pain stop. But, he stands there and takes it, just like he does when the horses charge him as if he knows that any minute I'm going to collapse.
There's a vicious ache spreading through my body. The reality is setting in. I feel like I'm being swallowed whole. I can't think. My breath is coming in short gasps. I wish I could go back to feeling nothing. This is worse, so much worse. I had just wanted her to stop drinking. How could I have been so stupid to think that would happen without her falling apart or one of us going insane? Why hadn't I realized it would hurt this badly? How was I so naive to think there wouldn't be this much damage? How did I not know I would be the one who paid for it all?
I'm suddenly so angry that this has been what I've been expected to hide and put up with. I want to throw something, wail, scream, rage, rip my whole world down until there is nothing left. How can a mother tell her daughter she loves her and still destroy her? How could she ask me to watch as she poisons herself right in front of me? How can she expect me to carry this much pain? How am I the one who is thought of as selfish for not being more understanding? Why couldn't she ever just be my mom? And now, I'm being punished for not being able to save her, and for trying to take the bottle away. I was never asked if I could survive hell. No one cared if I couldn't. I was just told I had to. I never once had a choice.
I had gotten what I wanted, I realize dully. She had finally reached her breaking point but at the cost of what? What if she died and I'm the one who pushed her off the edge? Breath heaving, I double over, clutching my stomach, frantically trying to somehow hold all the devastation in. I can't do this. It's too hard. It's too much. I'm not going to make it. Nick had been right, I think, as he blurs and disappears when the tears finally come. I was just about to crash.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." I'm sobbing so hard, so violently, I don't know I'm repeating the words over and over and over. I don't notice when Nick pulls me up and wraps me tight in his arms. All I can do is bury myself against him and drown under the grief.
I cry for all the times I couldn't, for all the times I was forced to stay silent, for all the times I was told not to. I cry because I don't want to do this anymore. I cry because deep down there's a part of me that's secretly hated her. I've hated that she chose the addiction over me, that I was just told I had to let it have her. That she let it. I cry out of sheer relief that our lives have finally shattered, and for the guilt that I've wanted them to.
And I cry for her, for all the pain and suffering and a terrible, abusive past that made her believe her only way out was to die.
I sob until I'm numb and exhausted and my mind shuts down. I don't know how long we stand there. Seconds, hours, days. It seems like such a short amount of time in comparison to the years and years of waiting. Tragedy doesn't take very long. Just a couple of minutes.
Slowly, painfully, I start to become aware of my surroundings again, as if waking from a coma. It's almost traumatic on my senses. Somewhere in the distance, a train is going by. My head is buried against Nick's shoulder, my lips pressed into the warmth of his neck. The horses are still standing side by side as if nothing is wrong and the world hasn't fallen apart. I hear the jagged gasps of my breath. I feel the cotton material of Nick's shirt still gripped my hands, smell the soap and woodsy scent of the aftershave he uses. He's rubbing my back, my shoulders, my hair. I burrow closer and can feel his heartbeat against mine, constant and steady. It's reassuring and comforting.
I'm breathless and dazed and disoriented. My head hurts from crying so hard. I pull back a little so I can see his face. I need to find something I recognize, something I know. His expression is dark, but gentle, and reminds me of how he looks at the horses when he's trying to get them to know they can trust him. I stare blearily up at him as he gently moves my hair back from my tear-streaked face. He's so close I can feel his breath on my skin, see the light flecks of gold glimmering through the brown in his eyes, the white jagged line of his scar above his brow. I hold his gaze. I don't dare look away. I don't want to see anything beyond where he is. He's the only thing I have left that is safe and makes any sense. His body heat, the scent, and feel of him radiate around me, protecting me from the disaster that waits just outside to surround me.
"Don't let go of me yet," I whisper.
His arms instinctively tighten around me and he shakes his head. "I won't."
Sighing, I close my eyes and lean weakly into him, resting my cheek against his. His skin is rough and warm. I let him breathe for me, in and out, deep and slow. I'm not ready to do it on my own. Rays of sunlight dapple hypnotically over my face, turning the color behind my lids to a soft, dreamy red. I drift, weightless and detached, letting him hold me up, blocking everything out but this one moment.
I don't know who moves first, if he shifts or if I do, but I hazily feel the corner of his mouth brush and skim over mine and I turn my head, instinctively seeking more and let him seal us together. The relief is intense, instant. I melt into him, dissolving as if I'm made of water, and my lips part blissfully under his. Our tongues meet and he makes a sound deep in his throat, his breath rushing unsteadily out and into me. I absorb every piece he gives me, letting them fill my empty, broken places. I feel him stagger slightly and he grabs on tighter to me as if losing his balance. I cling to him and we hold each other up and I let him take me wherever he wants to, far away from here, from me, from her. I knew he'd know how. We're both searching and starving and so sad. He needs the same thing I do and we desperately escape into each other. All I can feel is heat and heartbreak and him.
Everything I want to say and scream and sob is channeled into the kiss. I pour it all out, letting him take every ounce of my hurt. I've never experienced an understanding like this, where all our anguish and devastation is completely heard without having to say a word. I'm amazed at how perfectly my pain fits with his. It's so familiar and necessary and easy to rest in. This is what the sharp grittiness of grief tastes like; salty and bittersweet, a greedy, warm cure on my tongue.
Finally. I can't tell if one of us said it, or if I only thought it as I mindlessly lose myself in him.
He hears Becca coming before I do. Somewhere in the blind haze, I feel him pull back and let me go, the separation abrupt, the need interrupted. I wasn't prepared, and I'm suddenly holding onto nothing. I am still wanting more and sway towards him, but he's moved out of my reach. I stumble forward but this time he isn't holding me up and I have to catch myself.
We stand just inches apart and stare at each other. Our breathing is ragged, our cheeks flushed. My lips feel swollen and are damp from his. I can still taste him and I press my fingers against my mouth. If it's to hold in words, needs, my heart, I'm not sure. The stain of my tears is on his shirt. It's the only proof I have that it had been real.
He looks stunned as if it's just occurred to him what we did, and he can't figure out how it happened. Guilt radiates from him, as if he regrets going farther than he meant to, and giving up so much of himself to me. I inwardly cringe. I can't hear it was a mistake. Not when I need him this much. Not when I'm this vulnerable to him. I want to ask him what's wrong, but then see Becca walking up to us.
"Hey, you two." She's smiling as she looks at Maddy and Glory nuzzling each other. "Looks like they-" Her smile fades as she gets closer and notices the tension, the distance, our expressions. Her brows come up as she looks back and forth between us. Can she tell I've been crying? Neither one of us can look her in the eye. "What's going on?"
For a second I think she knows about the kiss. I don't know if she saw us. But, then I remember, and all the pain Nick had temporarily protected me from comes rushing back. I flinch as if I just got punched in the stomach, and my breath whooshes out from the force of the impact.
It's such a beautiful morning, I think, dazed. How can something so horrible be happening? I feel as if it should be dark and stormy, with winds violently swirling and gusting. It doesn't seem like the kind of day for an overdose. The light is too pretty for bad news. "My dad called." I have to force the words out as if the trauma made me forget how to speak. "My mom is in the hospital. He found her this morning."
From a completely separate and unreal place in my mind, I watch the shock, fear, and panic flit over her face, widen, and turn her eyes a bit wild. I have the surreal feeling that I'm looking at her from behind museum glass as if we're frozen in this horrible scene and not even really alive. Shell shocked, I feel her grab my hand and dully stare down at it. It's too tight, too desperate, and reminds me of the way my mom held onto me when I told her I was leaving California. I can't tell if it's to hold me up or her. "What happened?"
"She overdosed." The words scorch my throat, my tongue, my lips. I wonder if Becca will blame me, if she'll regret letting me come here now that she knows what I've done, what I'm really like, what I'm capable of. "She's alive, but she's not conscious." My head is pounding. Even my eyes hurt. I press my palm against my forehead and look helplessly around as if somehow I'll find the way I'm supposed to do this. I can't seem to figure out where I am. I'm so far from where I need to be. "I have to get to the hospital."
"I'm going with you." She wraps her arm around my shoulders, tucks me close. I'm surprised, thinking she'd be angry with me, but all she says is, "Come on, we'll get packed and get to the airport. I'll ask Ben to book us a flight."
She leads me past Nick, who stays where he is. I try to meet his eyes to see what he's thinking but he isn't looking at me. He still hasn't said anything. I don't want to leave him. I wasn't ready for goodbye yet. What if I never see him again? It's all happening so fast. My heart twists and I hold my breath, praying he'll give me some sign that I mean something to him, that our kiss did. When he says my name, I almost cry from relief.
I turn back to him, hoping, needing.
But all he says is, "You forgot your phone." Face deliberately blank, he holds it out to me.
"Oh," the word comes out on my breath and I feel my heart deflate. That's it? That's all I get? How can he let me go like this? As if everything we felt and experienced and found in each other wasn't real at all? Had I imagined it? I want to ask him, the questions push up against the back of my lips, but I don't dare speak them. I can't have my heart broken again. It's already too fragile. I can't take one more blow.
My hand is shaking as I take the phone from him. I notice how careful he is not to touch me. I look up at him, I can't seem to help it, knowing he can see everything I don't want him to. But, I don't have the strength to pretend anymore. None of it will matter once I'm gone. At least not to him. "Thank you," I murmur, trying to figure out when I had fallen for him. I want to go back and undo it. This hurts too much.
I can feel him holding himself out of my reach, but I catch the flicker of yearning, of regret, and something more, something deeper, but it's too far down inside of him for me to grasp onto it. His eyes lower to my mouth and stay there longer than I know he wants them to. Becca is still close by and waiting, and I wonder what he would do if she wasn't. His gaze lifts back to mine and holds for three heartbeats, and I see what I know he's feeling in his eyes. He leans a little closer and I foolishly wish he will tell me he doesn't want me to go, but all he says is, "I hope your mom is okay."
I can barely see him through the tears that well up. I think I manage to nod. I can't feel what my body is doing. He steps back, forcing me to have to do the same. There's nothing left to say. It's all over, just like that.
Tears slide down my cheeks as I make myself walk away from him, from the horses, from a life that wasn't really mine. I don't turn around. I'm too afraid I'll see that he's already turned his back on me. As if it's easy letting me leave. I can't figure out if I'm going as someone completely different or returning to the person I've always been. I wonder how I'll know either one when I don't even remember who I am anymore.