Forty-Two Minutes

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Chapter Twenty-Five

RICHARD

I saw a documentary once about a coal mining town out in Pennsylvania that was burning out from underneath itself due to a fire getting out of control in the mines. The town has been burning for over sixty years and nearly all the residents, with the exception of about five people, had evacuated years before.

The straggling few that have stayed behind, live in a toxic wasteland of smoke and ash and charred trees. Every day they risk falling into a coal pocket or dying from the poisonous fumes.

The town used to be a full, thriving community with festive Christmas parades down Main Street and 4th of July picnics in the park. But, now, it is nothing more than rubble and a couple of crumbling homes and an old cemetery. There's barely anything left. The roads in the town are cracked open, swollen, and bulging from the pressure and heat. No cars are allowed through due to the danger of them melting and being swallowed up by the blackened, steaming asphalt. It's not safe to stay or breathe the air.

And yet, the five continue to wait for those that left the town to return after the fire burns out. They still live as if everyone is going to come back any moment, hanging up decorations in the empty, forgotten town square and painting park benches no one will ever sit on. They believe one day, the threat will be contained, that eventually it has to be, and everyone can pick up where they left off.

The town has been condemned by the government, and there is literally nothing left to come back to, yet the few refuse to accept everything is gone and hope that life will return to normal once the smoke finally clears.

I keep thinking about that town, and those five people. They haunt and disturb me. They remind me of me, my family, and my life.

I feel like my world has been burning out from underneath itself for years and we are living in a toxic wasteland, and there is nothing left but ashes and condemned housing and rubble. What if we can't return to each other after the fire burns itself out? What if there is nothing left? What if the land is so damaged and destroyed we can't even rebuild? What if we are just refusing to accept reality and have spent all this time waiting in vain?

I knew the day would come when one of us would rock the system with a different choice. I'd hoped it would be Victoria choosing to get help for her addiction and coming to terms with her past. But, Lexy was the brave one out of all of us. Becca's letters changed the course of all our lives, and I was now in the place I had both feared and hoped for. Feared because I am terrified my wife won't survive this and relieved because the worst has finally happened, and hopefully, we can deal with the pain and move forward. I just hope it's not too late.

I've barely spoken to Lexy since she arrived at the hospital. We haven't had much time alone. I'm in the background, just as I've always been; quiet, useless, unnecessary, completely inept. It's unnerving to feel invisible when all eyes and expectations and errors seem to be on me.

Doctors and nurses and machines decide our lives and we hang suspended, frozen and paralyzed, in this space, as we wait and wait and wait to finally see.

I wasn't expecting to be faced with Becca. We've never met and don't know each other. It's been painfully polite and awkward between us; unresolved, misunderstood, stilted conversations. She wasn't at our wedding and we've never shared the holidays together. I only know of her through the little details Victoria has let slip about her.

They used to be extremely close, but when Victoria left Tennessee, she closed off all contact with her family. But she never threw away Becca's letters, which is telling in its own way. She still needed her sister, secretly hung onto her, and never stopped loving and missing her. Their connection is apparent, palpable and tangible, and sensory, and thicker than blood pacts made between palms. Their family history, the trauma they went through bind and seal them together in a way few could understand. In some ways, Becca knows more about her than any of us.

Becca and Lexy have bonded during her time in Tennessee. She's warm and kind, and it's clear how much they care for each other, how tender and protective she is towards her niece. Lexy has learned to trust her, love her, and lean on her. They huddle together in quiet corners, talking in hushed voices, holding hands to comfort each other. I've watched them over the endless hours and days of sitting and staring at the walls, relieved that at least one thing turned out good in this whole mess.

Becca is in Victoria's room, and the conversation looked intense. They were crying and clinging and holding onto each other so tightly, so fiercely, that I couldn't even step into the doorway. I'd had to back up from the sheer force and look away from how intimate, how breathless and desperate it all was. As if all the years or time or distance couldn't separate them, that nothing ever could, and shouldn't dare try. I wonder if Becca has been the one she's needed to cure her this whole time. It's the first moment they've seen or spoken to each other in over twenty years.

I wanted to give them some time to reconnect. At least that's what I tell myself. Truthfully, I'm avoiding them. I can't bear to face what I know they are all thinking. That this whole thing is my fault. We could blame the drinking, Victoria's past, her father. And those things are all valid reasons, but I know at the end of the day, where all the fingers are pointed. At me. Because I've done the worst thing out of all of them. Absolutely nothing. I didn't know how to save my family without it completely destroying them. And, so, I stood back, and let us burn alive from underneath ourselves.

I'm in one of the private family lounges. I was going to get coffee, but then had sat down, and haven't been able to move for almost an hour. I seem to have used up the last of my energy walking in here.

The television is on. I blankly glance at the late-night infomercial for the latest celebrity skincare product. Eternal youth in a bottle for only $29.95. If only it really were that easy. The perky woman's voice grates on me and I get up and find the remote on a stack of magazines, mute it. The room falls into silence just as Lexy walks in. We both go still. The room is empty except for us, making the quiet seem that much louder, echoing, hollow, and achingly obvious that I don't know what to do.

"I thought you were getting something to eat," I finally say, and hope it doesn't sound like I don't want her here. I'm very aware of how easily anything I say can be used against me.

"I wasn't hungry. I went back to the room, but Becca and mom are talking, and so I thought I'd come get some herbal tea."

I'm not sure if I should stay or go and so I just stand awkwardly where I am and watch as she walks over to the coffee and tea station. She picks out a packet of Mint Medley and gets a cup and presses the button, fills it with hot water, drops it in. I wonder if her stomach is upset, and wouldn't be surprised with the amount of stress she's buried under.

I remember she would often make it for Victoria to help with her nausea from the hangover. Not that it ever did any good. Old habits, I think sadly.

Neither of us says anything as she waits for the tea to steep, bobbing the string every couple of minutes. It's a strangely normal thing to do considering where we are.

Dumping the tea bag in the trash, she turns back around holding the cup in both hands. It's a recycled one, I notice absently. Hospitals are going green. Another threat and emergency we're up against. It's surreal to think disasters are happening outside the walls of this place. I've been so focused on waiting for Victoria to come back to life.

Lexy leans heavily back against the counter, lets out a weary sigh. She’s too young, I think, to have to carry the weight of all this. "It's so quiet in here," she murmurs. "It seems so loud and chaotic everywhere else."

She looks exhausted, I notice. She's barely eaten or slept since arriving at the hospital almost two weeks ago. It strikes me as ironic how we are the ones who seem to get worse while we wait for Victoria to get better. Sick with worry should be termed an actual epidemic.

I'm still standing near the doorway. Lexy sits down at one of the tables and sips her tea, the steam drifting up around her face, blurring, distorting, making it harder to read her thoughts and expression. I still haven't moved. The quiet hums and stretches and breathes around us, and seems to amplify how much there is to say, and how much we don't know how. I wish I still had the distraction of the television noise.

The urge of wanting to try strains in me, to fix something, anything, one thing. I internally push against the years and years of disappointment. I can't think of what to say that will matter or make a difference. No amount of apologies will ever be enough. It's all too inadequate, humiliating, and much too late. How do I get back to her? I have no idea how to close the distance.

She finally looks over at me, and I instinctively brace myself. It's coming, I think, she's going to level me with all her anger and accusations, and she'll be completely right. But, all she says is, "How are you doing?"

I'm surprised to be asked, and just blink for a second, my mouth partly open. I don't deserve to have anyone care, least of all her. "I'm not sure yet. Just coping I guess. How about you?"

"Same here," she murmurs. She rubs her forehead with the tips of her fingers. "I think my brain actually hurts."

I'm not sure what to say. I've been preparing for this moment for years, but now that we're here I have no idea what to do. I guess I wasn't as ready for it as I thought. Maybe no one ever is.

"You can sit down if you want."

It's not anger in her eyes, I realize. It's pity. She feels sorry for me. Now that I look back on it, I think she always has. I don't know why it's worse. Even as a child, she was incredibly sensitive, much too perceptive, and empathetic. Often to her own detriment. Maybe it's textbook behavior or survival instinct, or just simply her. She's taken care of us for years, putting our needs before her own. She still is. We've left her no choice. I feel the flush of shame rise up, decades of it, hot and nauseating in my belly. The gurgling of it seems to come from deep within, a dark, sticky tar covering my whole body.

Did she always know how helpless and lost I've felt? How much I've needed them? Did she come in here to find me and pull me back inside from where I've been locked out in the dark?

"Okay," I answer, making the deliberate choice to not disappear this time. I feel too empty-handed and defenseless and get myself a cup, robotically going through the motions of preparing the coffee. "I've had about six cups of this already," I mutter, sipping it. It's surprisingly good. I'll probably get an ulcer but it's the least of my problems at this point. Tossing the wooden stir stick in the trash, I make myself go towards my daughter.

I sit down across from Lexy and realize how bone-tired I am. I rub my hands over my face and then look bleakly around the room. Cheery watercolors are on the walls, floral couches and chairs are scattered around, tables with crayons and books for children. A vending machine with candy, chips, soda, and nuts. Normal things to do while people wait for news that will change their lives for the better or shatter them beyond repair.

"How in the world did we get here?" I meant to only think it but the words slip out.

"I don't know," her voice is heavy, grief-stricken. She looks across the table at me. It's not large, but it feels as if a hundred miles of lacquered oak are in between us. Her eyes are damp and dark and tortured and my heart splits in my chest as I look head-on into her pain. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean for all this to happen."

I wince and my breath shudders out as the realization hits. What have we done to her? Why didn't I know she'd be blaming herself? I was certain she held me responsible. I do. How do I make either of them understand how much I love them? Would they even believe me after all this time?

I sit up straight and lean towards her, make myself look directly at her. It's harder than I thought it would be, as I face all my failings in her eyes and the tears on her cheeks. "This isn't your fault, Lexy. You didn't do anything wrong. We should have told you the truth and I should have gotten her help a long time ago. I'm so sorry I didn't." The words feel weak and much too small for the gravity of pain I've caused. I don't deserve absolution.

"Did you know what had happened to her?"

"Some of it. Most of it she wouldn't talk about." The regret and guilt will haunt me for the rest of my life. "I just thought we had it more under control." I shake my head at how absurdly stupid I am. "I kept telling myself it wasn't as bad as it really was. I wanted to think I could handle it. I didn't know how to face that I couldn't."

Wiping her tears with the back of her hand, Lexy sniffles stares down into her tea. "How do other people deal with this?"

"I have no idea." We're a statistic, I realize. A sad casualty and part of a percentage. We're just like everyone else. I don't know how I thought we wouldn't be, that somehow it wasn't the same for us, that we weren't as bad off as all of the others. And, now, here we are, I think, again hit by the harsh reality of our situation. "How was it in Tennessee?"

Almost against her will, she manages to smile for the first time in weeks, as if she can't help it, as if she carries the memory of the ranch around in her pockets. Her entire being changes, lifts, her fear momentarily falls away.

"It's beautiful there. So quiet and peaceful. Becca showed me pictures of our family. I saw photos of our great, great grandparents. And mom's parents." Her smile fades, her eyes turn haunted and serious. "Becca told me what it was like for them growing up, about the abuse and the drinking, how afraid they were all the time. I don't blame mom for not wanting to remember it. I don't know if I could do it either. It was so horrible."

"She wouldn't tell me much about it." I feel how tense my body is. I'm rigid in the chair, my muscles tight and coiled, ready for a fight. It all makes me so angry. I hate thinking of the fear and pain Victoria had gone through. I hate knowing there is nothing I can do to change it. If she makes it through this, I will do everything I can to make sure she knows she's not alone. I don't know yet if she will let me or if any of them will. Another thing I am waiting to see. "I found a picture of the ranch once that she'd hidden in the bottom of a drawer. It looks like a nice place."

Her smile glimmers back. "It is. They have horses and so much land. It seems like it goes on forever." Her voice has a dreamy, far away tone to it now. I'm not sure if she notices. "Becca and Ben rescue horses that have been abandoned or are put in shelters. Nick also helps with them. They have this one named Glory. She was a famous racehorse and won a bunch of awards. She's amazing. Nick has really brought her a long way. I was helping him take care of her."

"Who is Nick?" Is it my imagination or did Lexy blush?

"He's friends with Ben," she stammers, looking flustered as if she accidentally let a secret slip. "They grew up together. He lives in the cottage behind the main house and works on the ranch."

He's a lot more than that, noticing how she seems to hold the thought of him close to her, the softness in her voice when she talks about him. She also won't look directly at me when she mentions him, as if he's too personal, intimate, important to reveal. I’m curious but know I'm not in any position to pry into her personal life. Letting it go for now, I sip my coffee. I don't want to embarrass her. I want to keep her talking to me.

She misses it, I realize. She'd come back different as if she had found a missing part of herself she didn't know she needed. I've never seen her look like this before. Excited, content, alive, somehow in her element. Normal. She could be any other girl right now instead of one sitting in a waiting room of a hospital while her mother recovers from an overdose. I smile at the way she lights up when she talked about the ranch, the land, and horses. A life completely different than here. It was all I ever wanted for her. I can't remember the last time I saw my daughter smile. "You were happy there."

She looks guilty as if she's not sure she was allowed to be. It saddens me to watch her glow dim and disappear as she returns to our stark, sterile, scary reality. It's a far cry from the lush, green pastures I'd seen once in a photograph. "Yeah, I guess I was." She looks at me and I see Victoria and Becca in her features, mannerisms, hair, eyes. Beauty and heartbreak passed down through the generations. I wonder if I should worry about what else she's inherited. "Thank you for leaving Becca's letters for me. I'm really glad I finally got to know her and Ben. Even with everything that's happened."

This is the first time we've acknowledged what I had done. And, now, we're sitting in the consequences and ripple effect of all my choices. I don't know yet if it will be the greatest regret of our lives or the one thing that finally saves us.

Excuses, denials, explanations spring into my mind, wait on my tongue, but quickly die and fade. They all feel too meaningless. I have no right to try and justify anything. "It was the only way I knew to get you out."

She's quiet as she glances around the room. "But we're not out," she murmurs. She looks back to me, holds my gaze, and I'm again forced to stare into all the things I should have done. "It's not ever really over, is it?"

I stare at her as the weight of what she said settles hopelessly over me. She's right, painfully right. It wasn't just about Victoria no longer drinking. Even without the bottle, there was still the battle of her past that we were up against, not to mention all the destruction I'd left her with by allowing this to go on so long. Our marriage is a mess. So are our lives. And she will always want to drink. Even years later, the craving could still rise up. She still will have to continuously choose not to give in to the temptation. Odd how even destructive habits become normal. There is so much we are going to have to learn how to change. Everything is going to be different. We are completely starting over. Maybe we're all in recovery, and in need of rehabilitation.

"No, I guess it isn't."

We sit in silence for a few minutes, both of us lost and trying to find our way through the thick of things. "What do we do now?" she finally asks.

It dawns on me that she's never asked me before. Maybe she already knew that I couldn't figure out how to get her mother to make a different choice or that I wasn't brave enough to make it for her. She hadn't trusted me to step in and fight for them, and she'd been right not to. I'm the one who is supposed to protect her, the one who is supposed to have the answers. But, I don't know anything more than she does. I never have. The addiction has always been smarter and stronger than us.

"Wait and see, I guess." And then wait some more. "After she's through with detox, she goes into treatment. We'll also be doing family counseling. She'll have a sponsor and go to AA meetings. We just take it one day at a time." I see why they say that now. It literally comes down to trying to make it through one single day, second to second, minute to minute, hour to hour. And then do it all again tomorrow. I'm already overwhelmed and we haven't even started. How do people do this?

"Will it get better?"

It had to, right? After hitting rock bottom like this, where else could we go? But I'd waited so long and nothing had changed. I again think of that nuclear waste of a town in Pennsylvania with those few who are still waiting in futility for their lives to get back to normal and come back from the smoldering grave. They believe it will. But what happens when they realize it won't? They can't ever recapture what they used to have. The fire still isn't out. Their hometown, as they've known it, is nothing but rubble and ash. They can no longer stay where they've been. Neither can we.

My daughter is looking at me, young and sad and scared, waiting for me to promise that everything is going to work out. I want to tell her it will. I want so badly to be able to give her that. But, I can’t. I just simply don’t know yet. "I hope so."

We fall back into the quiet and do what so many others have done in this same room before us. Drink our coffee and tea without really tasting it. Try to hold normal conversations. Don't look too long into each other's eyes for fear of completely breaking down or seeing that you bear the blame for the tragedy happening to them.

And we wait. And wait and wait and wait, clinging to a desperate, excruciating hope for the recovery that will either change our lives for the better or the relapse that could bring everything crashing back down around us.
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