Forty-Two Minutes

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Chapter Twenty-Four

VICTORIA

The first thing I see when I open my eyes is the locket around Becca's neck. The half of a heart glints in the glow from the lamp that sits on the table next to my hospital bed. She's in a chair, reading a book while she waits for me to breathe, blink, be alive. Still heavily sedated, I stare in fascination at how beautifully the gold seems to gleam.

I'm surprised she's still wearing it. It's comforting to see it on her. I can't find mine, I realize, as I reach up for the chain that has never left my body since our Grandmother Rose gave us the lockets years before. My neck is bare for the first time since I was a little girl. I wonder if I lost it. I wouldn't have taken it off. I notice my wedding ring is also missing and it occurs to me they were probably removed after my overdose. Precautions against using them as weapons to hurt myself. I'm a hazard risk. I always have been.

I didn't expect the intense rush of relief at seeing her. I thought I would feel her anger or my own panic, and of course guilt. But, all I feel is the fierce bond and love, and the pull towards her is so overwhelming and strong, it completely overrides everything else. I didn't realize how much I have missed her. All the time and distance and fear instantly fall away the second I see her.

Sisters really do have their own language. She's the only one who knows me, the only one I've never had to lie to. She's been there since the beginning and is the only one who understands what it's like trying to survive hell. She was the one hiding under the porch with me. She's my safe place. She always was. Seeing her is breathlessly euphoric and I break through the decades and debris and damage to get back to her.

"Becca," I rasp, already crying. Or maybe I've never stopped. I'm tied to the bed by chords and wires and tubes. I'm not even breathing on my own, and it's an unwanted reminder that I'm still not trusted or allowed to. I want to rip them off. I can't get to her and desperately hold out my hand.

She instantly sits up, the book falling off her lap. I hear it clamber to the floor. But she doesn't bother picking it up and is already reaching for me, her expression worried. "Are you in pain?" she asks me, her voice soft and southern and so like mine.

All the time, I think. I breathe her in. She smells the same. Lavender and sunlight. "You're here."

She's so close our foreheads touch. Her eyes are exactly the way I remember them. Pure and clear and green. Everything about her has always been lighter. I have too many iniquities. I flash back to a memory of looking at her in the dark under our bed while daddy threw things and mama cried downstairs. Her eyes were all I could see as we tucked our heads so close our breath mingled, and we cowered on the hardwood floor, clinging to each other while his voice and the fear of him filled our whole house.

"Ssshhh. Yes, I'm here. Oh, honey, you're shivering." She gently tucks the blankets around me. I can't seem to get warm even though my body hasn't stopped sweating in days. My teeth are chattering. The sheets are damp beneath me. "Better?"

It wasn't, but I don't care. I feel so young all of a sudden. "Stay with me," I beg, still sobbing. I can't control myself. I have no right to need her like this, not after all I've done, but I can't let go of her. It's like survivors finding each other after something traumatic and catastrophic has happened.

"I will." She moves my hair back from my damp face. "It's alright," she soothes. Nothing is alright, it never has been, but my sister is here, and for now, I let myself fall apart in her hands.

Minutes tick by. Without realizing it, my breathing slows and matches with hers. Our hearts always somehow beat the same. I finally realize how quiet it is. We're alone in the room. "Where is everyone?"

"I made Lexy go get something to eat. She hasn't left your side since you got here. Richard went to get some coffee in the lounge."

"How long have I been here?"

"About eleven days." My hospital gown is slipping off my shoulder. Becca gently pulls it back up so it covers my skin. It reminds me of something our Mama would do. But, I still feel too exposed.

"What time is it?"

"Almost midnight."

It will be tomorrow soon. That will be twelve days without a drink. Another day to try and get through. And another and another and another. Hopelessness washes over me. I can't think about it yet and make myself focus on her. "I'm surprised you came."

She gives me a wounded look. “Of course I did," she says, her voice fierce and fervent. The intensity makes me go still. "You're my sister. Nothing can ever change that."

Nothing ever has, I realize. Not time or space or the unanswered letters. She kept each and every promise we made to each other. All this time she's held on to me, even when I was so lost I couldn't remember my own name. It's comforting that she's always known me. "Does it look the same out on the ranch?"

"Pretty much." She adjusts my oxygen tubes so they are not tangled over my arm and I can't pull them out. I always breathe better when she's close. "We painted the barn and the outbuildings a few years ago, but not much else has changed. Our tree is still standing."

I can picture the large sturdy oak out front. We would take turns pushing each other on the tire swing. I would go higher and higher and higher until I thought I could almost touch the sky. I was free and out of his reach for a few seconds until I fell back to earth.

Every blade of grass on that land is branded into me. I can still smell it, the horses, the dust, the soil, the whiskey, his sweat. I don't want to remember that house and the fear that lived inside those walls. I tuck the blankets closer around me and hold tighter to Becca. I don't know how I lived without her for so long. "Why do you stay there?"

"How else would you know where to find me?"

Her words register and the guilt floods hotly over my skin. I knew this moment would eventually come. I can only stare at her as the years of silence and thousands of questions and useless apologies hang heavily in the air between us. I have so much to explain. I don't know how or where to start. The words clog up in the back of my throat, like fallen leaves trapped in a storm drain. "I wrote you back," is all I manage to get out.

Surprised, she looks at me. "You did?"

I nod. "I just couldn't send them," I admit quietly. The shame is scalding, but I know I deserve it. "I didn't know how to deal with it all." There are tears on her cheeks and each one is my fault. I know I've hurt her, and I wish more than anything I could take it all back. But, I can't. There's too much damage. The wreckage is scattered everywhere between us. I'm lying in it. This is all so hard and I have no way to escape. I fiercely crave a drink. I can actually taste the burn of it.

"I'd like to read them sometime. If you still have them."

"I do." I saved each one in a box in the back of my closet.

I can't help thinking how much she looks like our mother. Everyone told her that. Mama even named her after the character Rebecca Thatcher from Tom Sawyer because it was her favorite book. Things were always going to be easier for her, simpler. She is so pretty and kind and sweet, the first to give and help. Everyone loves her. Not a bad word could be spoken of her. She never would have turned out like me. I wonder if Mama had always known life would be harder for me.

I know all too well who I take after. And plenty could be said of me. I'm the black sheep. It's too painful to remember. But, I can't get away from the fact that the one person I swore I'd never become is the one person I'm most like. I don't know how to forgive myself for that. Do I even stand a chance at being someone else? Or is it too late?

"Was Lexy happy there?"

"I think she was trying to be," she answers, wiping the tears from her cheeks with the tips of her fingers. I already know they are not really gone. I'll make her cry again. I can't seem to help it. "She missed you. Talked about you all the time. She was waiting for you."

So am I. We're all waiting for the same thing. For me to change, get clean, start over. For me to want to. As if I know how. Lexy never once gave up on me. I wonder how I managed to have a daughter like her. How did she turn out good when she came from someone like me? I envy how open she allows her heart to be. She's beautiful, inside and out. I'm amazed she hasn't been ruined or spoiled or corrupted by me. I don't want to disappoint her anymore.

"Does the pain ever stop?"

"I don't know," Becca murmurs helplessly, and we look at each other as the machines beep and the IV drips and the blood pressure cuff at my arm tightens and loosens. I can't hide how far I've fallen. "I hope so."

The drugs are making me groggy and I wipe my hand blearily over my face. "I'm so tired." Of all of it. Of being an alcoholic, of running, of hiding and lying and fighting. Of hurting everyone I love. Talking is wearing me out. Being alive is exhausting.

"I know you are." Standing, she adjusts my pillows, kisses the top of my head. "Try and sleep."

I don't want her to go and cling to her hand. I'm afraid to be alone without her. "Keep watch," I whisper and see her go still as the memory sinks into her. She knows what I'm asking her to do. We always said those words when daddy was drunk and one of us would stay up to warn the other when he was coming and it was time to run under the porch. She would fall asleep with her head in my lap, and I would quietly sing to help her not be frightened.

Tears in her eyes, Becca nods, holds tighter to my hand. "I will." It's just her and me, tucked into our hiding place away from the rest of the world. It always has been.

I drift into a restless, feverish sleep. The nightmares wait just beyond our little circle and are much too clear and unfiltered now that there is no alcohol numbing my mind and senses.

I only open my eyes once the rest of the night. Becca is still sitting in the chair next to me, standing guard and holding onto me. I'm not sure which one of us won't let go. I dream of the summer nights of our childhood. The air was so hot and muggy even the sheets wouldn't keep us cool. We'd whisper secrets and stay close and pray for daylight.

And now, more than twenty years later, my little sister is still keeping watch to protect me from me.
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