Ben is on the phone with Becca. I stare at the television screen, trying to pretend I'm not listening to every word he's saying. She calls every night to check in. It's frustrating only hearing one side. Impatiently, I wait for him to hang up.
"Sure is quiet without the two of you here," Ben says. "Let Lexy know we're thinking of her." He smiles and glances over at me. I raise my brows in suspicion, wondering if I should worry about what's being said. "Yeah, I'm keeping an eye on him. Don't worry he's behaving himself. Been a little cranky lately but that's nothing new." He laughs when I scowl at him. He falls quiet again as he listens. His voice goes low, tender, as it always does around her. "I miss you too. Can't wait for you to come home. Yeah, I'll talk to you tomorrow. Hug Lexy for me. Love you more. Goodnight." He hangs up, sets his cell on the table next to him.
"How's it going out there?" I ask, trying to sound casual and indifferent. I'm not sure if I'm pulling it off.
"As well as can be expected. She's tired. They all are." Even with Becca gone, I notice he still sits on the left side of the couch, leaving the spot where she always likes to sit empty, waiting. "Becca's going to stay out there a while longer. Victoria is finally through with the detox. She's awake and is talking, but isn't strong enough for much else yet. They are transferring her to the treatment center in the next few days. Becca's pretty worried about Lexy, said she's barely eating or sleeping. Hasn't left the hospital once." He glances over at me. "You talk with Lexy at all?"
My stomach clenches up at her name. I carefully shake my head. I can't make myself look at him and stare intently at the television screen. I feel too guilty. I haven't told Ben about kissing her. He's fiercely protective of his niece. I'm not sure how he'll take it. I'm not even sure what to do with it yet. If I talk about it, it's too real. But, it's all I think about.
"You were spending a lot of time together before she left. She's going through a real rough time right now. Might be nice if you called her. I bet she'd like to hear from you."
"I seriously doubt it," I mutter under my breath, remembering how I'd pushed her away, how cold I'd been towards her. I'm probably the last person she wants to talk to right now.
I go still, realizing I said it out loud. I can't explain it without telling him about the kiss, which would open up a whole bunch of other questions I have no idea how to answer. "Nothing," I mumble. I lift the mason jar of sweet tea to my lips, swallow, trying to avoid his gaze.
"What's with you?" Ben asks, his eyes narrowing as he studies me. "You've been in a bad mood for the last two weeks. Even more than usual."
Scowling, I swallow back what I really want to say and instead tell him, "Nothing is with me." I try to keep my voice calm and even. "I'm just tired. It's only the two of us here and there's a lot of work to do." When he continues to frown at me and speculate, I shift and rest my elbow on the armrest, leaning my head against my hand so it shields part of my face. I stare back at the television, but all I can see is her. "Anyway, I'm sure Lexy has plenty of people to talk to out there. I don't even know what I'd say to her."
"You could just ask how she's doing. She'd probably like to hear a familiar voice right now. Poor girl," he murmurs, shaking his head. "She's been through so much already. I can't imagine having to deal with all of this. Richard is taking her back to the house to get some rest. Becca said she was about ready to pass out on her feet."
Even though I know he's not trying to make me feel guilty, his words are like hot coals, branding and searing through my skin, burning me up from the inside out. I already feel horrible for how I'd treated her. Ben wasn't wrong. I have been in a bad mood. I've been distracted, irritable, restless ever since she'd left. Thinking about her, waiting day after day, just to see if her mom would make it through to morning, makes me feel like a hideous creature that crawled out from underneath a rock.
I'm relieved when Ben yawns, rubs his hands over his eyes. I can't handle any more questions. "I'm going to bed. I'm beat." He gets up, goes into the kitchen, and puts his empty jar and plate in the sink. It's my turn to do the dishes. He walks towards the stairs, stops halfway there, glancing back over his shoulder at me. "You know, it's okay if you miss her." Startled, I look over at him, and realize he understands exactly what I'm not telling him. I don't bother arguing. We both already know he's right. He doesn't wait for me to say anything and starts heading up. "See you in the morning."
"Yeah," I answer absently, lost in thought. I do miss her. I hadn't realized I would. I thought I'd be relieved, that her leaving was what I wanted. But every day she was gone, the emptiness seems to get worse. And now I can't stop thinking about her, up in the middle of the night, alone and sad and scared.
Turning off the television, I make myself get up. Trying to force her out of my thoughts, I distract myself with washing the dishes. I've already made my decision. I'm not going to call her. Ben hadn't changed my mind. He didn't know the whole situation, what had happened between us, what I'd done to her. By the time the dishes were in the rack to dry, and the counters wiped down, I was still having the same argument with myself.
I turn off the lights and walk out the back door, not bothering to lock it behind me. Abraham will stand guard where he's dozing on the porch. "Goodnight, boy." I ruffle his head as I go down the steps towards my place. Ever since Becca has been gone, Abraham stays near the house to keep an eye on Ben, as if he knows he's missing her. Or maybe they both are.
Lexy didn't need to hear from me. Considering how we'd left things, she'd probably just hang up on me. I know I'd hurt her, and I hadn't even tried to apologize or explain. There's no way I could have. I didn't know where to start. So I had shoved her back, letting her take the fall for everything I didn't know how to deal with.
I walk around the back of the house towards the cottage still trying to convince myself that calling her was a stupid idea. I should just go to bed, but I already know I won't sleep. I usually can't, but now it's because of her.
I shouldn't have kissed her.
The thought has gone through my head at least a hundred times since she left. I've spent the last two weeks beating myself up over it, wishing I could rewind time, reverse the moment it happened. And then I swing back full circle, trying to figure out how to kiss her all over again.
What makes all this guilt and frustration even worse is that it's completely my fault. I'm the one who shifted and turned towards her.
If she hadn't been crying and holding onto me, if her life hadn't just fallen apart, if she hadn't been looking up at me, her eyes beautiful and broken and begging me to save her, I might have had the strength to stop myself. I could say I hadn't meant to, that it was an accident or a mistake, but now, alone in the dark, I have to admit that it hadn't been. I knew exactly what I would find in her. From the second I'd met her I'd known. And I hadn't been wrong.
She'd been so close to me. The moment had been so intense, so unexpected, and somehow, so familiar. Watching her break down had reminded me of losing Megan. I know what it's like to have your entire world shatter and there's nothing you can do except watch it burn to ashes around you. Her pain had been the only thing that made sense to me. I'd understood her, recognized the devastation, and desperately moved into it.
The minute I kissed her, I collided head-on with my own past, guilt, and despair. I had years and years of hurt pent up inside of me, a thousand things I'd long buried that I wanted to tell her, to lay bare, to shout out at the top of my lungs. Things no one else knew, things I never dared say out loud because I knew they would crush me.
But with Lexy, I didn't need to say anything and crashed into her and let everything go. I could taste all my loss on her and hungrily fed off of it and found complete release. The rush of relief had been so overwhelming, so euphoric and exhilarating, I'd staggered backward from the force. If she hadn't already been clinging to me, I would have fallen.
That kiss is the first real thing I've felt in years.
I hadn't wanted to stop which is why I'd had to. I'd pulled back out of sheer self preservation. I'd suddenly realized I had nothing left to lose. I had given it all away to her. I hadn't even hesitated. I hadn't known what would happen after. I hadn't been able to think. Not when she'd completely undone me. She somehow broke past my walls and made it through straight to the heart of me. She took every ounce of anguish I'd poured into her and kept taking and taking until my every defense was broken down.
She was lost and sweet and starving, and even softer than I'd imagined she'd be. It was a dangerously addictive combination. It had been too much. It had been terrifying. It had been everything I've needed. I'd been completely stripped bare to the point I'd had to push her away to keep my sanity.
I'd almost kissed her again. There had been that one split-second before she'd left that I had almost lost my mind. I'd still been aware enough to realize Becca was only a few feet away and barely managed to control myself.
I hadn't wanted her to go. Not yet, not when she'd walked away with so many pieces of me. But now she was gone, and I hadn't had a chance to get them back. And there was nothing I could do about it.
I had watched her leave, not looking away until she was nothing but a speck and silhouette against the shimmering green, seeming to disappear. I'd wondered if she would turn around, waited for her to look back at me, but she hadn't.
The need is so much worse now that I know what I found with her. I wish I didn't know what I was missing. I'd lost something the day she left. I'd known the second she walked away, that I was letting go of the one person who could revive me. But, now, I'm left here all alone, with a gaping hole in my gut.
The realization stirs up the frustration all over again and I shove the screen open and step out onto the porch. The cottage feels too small and stuffy and suffocating. I rub the back of my neck to ease the tension. It doesn't really help, and breathe in the sultry night air, hoping it will clear my head. The muggy heat is inescapable. So is Lexy. I don't want to think anymore. It's hurting me.
I guess when it all comes down to it, none of this changes anything. Now that she was back with her family she'll probably never leave her mom's side again. Her guilt won't let her. She might come to visit Becca and Ben from time to time, but she wouldn't stay. I'm not sure what would happen with her singing, but that wasn't my business or my problem. By the time she ever made it over this way again, everything that had happened with us would be a distant memory. Her family may own this land, but she didn't belong out here. She'd grown up out in the suburbs of California, not a horse ranch in Tennessee.
Funny how I can't really picture her out there though. It seemed everywhere I looked out here I can see her. In the stables with Glory, singing on the porch, sitting next to me at the kitchen table, working on the land side by side.
Kissing her in the pasture.
The memory sneaks up on me again and I grit my teeth before the aching takes me over. I can't even walk past the spot where it happened without remembering.
It's the image of the fear in her eyes that finally makes my decision. Her life had shattered and exploded, and I had still hurt her. I had wanted to punish her for making me care about her, for making me feel, for making me believe in something more. Is this really who I've turned into? I hate myself for it.
Not one minute passes that I don't remember how she looked the day she got the phone call, how dazed, dilated, and dark her eyes had been, how hard she'd cried, how tightly she'd held onto me as if I were her only lifeline. I can't sit back and do nothing.
I'm worried about her. I can't seem to get around it. I want to make sure she's all right. One more time, just to hear her voice, and then maybe this vicious guilt will leave me alone.
I pull my cell phone out of my pocket and stare down at it, weighing the risk. I know what will happen if I talk to her. She'll pull me back into her. I don't know how to think about both her and Megan. I don't know how to need them both. I can't explain the confusion I feel as I try to hold onto my past while being forced to deal with the present. I don't like that the gap feels as if it's widening, as if I'm becoming two different people. Lexy is the only one who seems to know who I am anymore.
Scrolling down, I find her name in my contacts and quickly press it before I can change my mind. My heart thuds heavily and my mouth is dry as I count one ring...two...
It's on the fourth ring. One more and it will go to voicemail. Maybe she finally fell asleep. Or maybe she knows it's me and is choosing to ignore the call. Feeling like an idiot, I almost hang up. But, then she answers.
All the distance I've tried to put between us instantly disappears at the sound of her voice. I close my eyes as my defenses crumble. The churning in my gut calms, quiets, stills. Maybe I'm not what she needs, but she's exactly what I do. When I open my eyes I realize I am looking at the exact spot where we kissed a few weeks before. Frustrated, I turn away, wipe my hand over my face, trying to find some sort of solid ground. She's still waiting. I make myself say something.
"Lexy? It's Nick." As if she doesn’t know, I think, silently kicking myself. I realize I'm tense, anticipating what her response will be. She has every right to be angry at me. I know I messed up, and owe her an apology. But how do I say sorry without talking about the rest of what happened? I wait for her to call me out, to accuse me, to ask, but she doesn't, and I let it sit on the back burner for a bit. "Were you asleep?"
"No, I'm still up. I can't sleep."
I wish I didn't understand what she meant. The loneliness felt like it was waiting for me around every corner. She sounds weary and exhausted. Surrounded, like someone being hunted. I wince, feeling a fresh wave of regret for waiting this long to call her.
Relieved she hasn't hung up on me yet, I slowly let out my breath and nervously clear my throat. I can't seem to get my voice to work. I'm not sure what to do now that she's answered. I hadn't thought that far out.
The kiss is between us and has changed things. The lines that had been there before were totally wiped out the instant my lips touched hers. I have no idea how to stand where we are now. I wonder if she will ask me about it, and hope she doesn't. I don't know what to say, or how to explain what it has done to me. How much it has changed.
"Yeah...uh...Ben said you were having a rough time out there. Just wanted to see how you were doing."
"It's been really hard," she answers, her voice thick and heavy. "It's just a lot to deal with."
"How's your mom?"
"She's alive, thank God. She survived the overdose and detox. It's been horrible to watch her go through that." She goes quiet for a second and I hear her let out a shaky breath before she speaks again. "Ironically though, that was the easy part. The hardest thing for her now is going to be figuring out how to live without drinking. But at least she finally agreed to go into treatment."
"Yeah, it is." I hear rustling, and imagine she's in bed, in that house, alone in her room, too far from here, from me. "I wasn't sure if she would. They are talking about transferring her next week."
"How long is her program?"
"Thirty days, but she can stay longer if she needs to. She'll live at the facility. It's by the beach. The brochure makes it look like a spa."
"Those places always do," I say, and am relieved to hear her laugh softly. I bet she needs it. I haven't heard the sound in a while, and realize it's another part of her I've missed.
"I've noticed that too. I guess it's supposed to be soothing and relaxing."
"Probably, considering what they're dealing with."
"Yeah." I notice her voice has flatlined out again. I don't like how empty it is. "It's hard work getting clean. But, she will have a sponsor that monitors her even after she's done. And she will go to AA meetings."
"You must be happy she's finally getting help."
"I am. We all are. It's strange to think about her being sober. I realized today I've never known her like that. She's been drunk almost my whole life."
It was one of the saddest things I'd ever heard anyone say. I can feel the jaggedness of her grief through the line and distance. I don't have any answers or remedies for her but it's not what she's asking for. I'm as lost as she is and so I give her what I'd need and stay quiet and simply listen to her, letting the weight of her pain hang on the air between us.
"How's it being back home?" I ask after a few moments.
"I was actually just thinking how different everything feels, like it's someone else's house which doesn't make a lot of sense because I grew up here."
There's something in her voice that makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck, a warning of things to come. I'm not sure what she's getting at. "You haven't been there in a while." A train is going by, its whistle blowing.
"Yeah, I guess. Everything was so much easier out there. Where are you right now?"
I wait until the rattle and rumble of the wheels on the tracks fade into the night before answering her. "Out on the porch at my place. Why?"
"I just want to picture it," she murmurs and I hear the longing in her voice. "I really miss it."
Do you miss me? I wonder, but don't dare ask. I have no idea what I would do with either answer. Because I'm finally comfortable she's not going anywhere, I allow myself to sit down on the porch steps, the warped wood creaking and aching beneath me. I lean back against the rail, look out into the dark. It doesn't feel as lonely now.
"How's Ben?" she asks.
"He's fine. We've been busy with the new horses that came in last week. He went to bed about an hour ago." Neither one of us talks about why we're still up. We both already know. I think of the nights I had found her, how late it had been, as if she'd sent out a secret signal just for me to meet her in the dark, and how it seemed we were the only two in the world who were still awake.
We fall quiet again. I can't remember ever feeling more awkward and foolish and tongue-tied. I don't know how to do this. I'm not good at it.
I keep getting distracted. All I can think about is her lips on mine, her hands clinging to me, the scent and taste of her everywhere. I notice it's uncomfortably hot, even so late when the air has cooled a little.
I try to make myself focus, open my mouth to say something, come up with nothing, and close it again on a helpless breath. I wonder if she'll get bored and want to hang up.
I can't help but smile. I was wondering how long until she'd ask. I've never met anyone who was able to get a horse to easily come to her simply with a crook of her finger. Just like me, I think wryly. Apparently I'll follow her all the way to California. "She's good," I respond, glad she hadn't said she wanted to go. "Getting stronger every day. I'm going to try riding her in the next few weeks, see how she does."
"I wish I could be there to see it. I really miss her. Maybe I'll get to ride her when we come back after my mom is done with rehab."
Fear and need slam into me at exactly the same time. My reaction is so abrupt and unexpected that before I can get a grip on it, I hear myself blurt out, "You're coming back?" and even to my own ears, it sounds like I'm accusing her. Maybe I am. It was too soon. I'm not ready. I thought I'd have more time to figure this out.
"Yeah." Her voice is cautious, wary, wounded, and it's all my fault. Again. "It’s going to be part of her twelve step program. It will hopefully help her face what happened to her out there and get some closure. Why?"
My mind is racing. I don't know what to say. I don't know how to fix this. I'm not even sure I can. I can't pretend she's wrong in what she heard, and I can't take the words back. Floundering, I try to pull myself together. "I just didn't think you were going to," I answer, lamely, and mentally kick myself for how stupid I am.
"Oh," is all she says. I hear the hurt in her voice, the confusion and disappointment, but don't have my footing back enough to try and undo what just happened.
Misunderstanding is like static in the air between us. I stare without seeing out in the night, hoping for answers. We'd only been on the phone for about ten minutes and I've already managed to hurt her. I can't figure out how not to. If she gets any closer to me, I fear I'll do it again. Staying away from her should be what I want. It should be easier than this. But it isn't. I can't do it. I don't want to go back to the way it is without her.
"I guess I should let you go," she murmurs dully, and I hear something else in her voice. Is she pushing me away? She's never been the one who does. Even from here, I can feel her shutting down and withdrawing. The panic is intense. "I know you've got to get up early."
"Wait." I don't want to go back to the emptiness, the nothingness, the void she would leave behind. "Don't go yet."
"Are you sorry you kissed me?" Her voice cracks, throwing me off. Is she crying? Her question pierces through the line to me, penetrating through the barriers and walls I tried to put up between us.
I jolt as if lightning struck beneath my feet, surging hot and electric through my arches, tingling up through my body, stealing my breath. No, yes, maybe. Never. I can't think straight. I'm grateful I'm already sitting down.
I quietly swear. "Lexy, I..." There's too many thoughts, needs, feelings, jumbled up, a tangled mess, and they slam into me all at once. I can't sift through them fast enough, and I don't want her to hang up before I do. "I don't ...I can't um..." Feeling lost and foolish, I trail off into the horrible, echoing silence.
"Never mind," she says and I hear the heartbreak in her voice, making my stomach drop. I'd made her sound the same way the day she left. Devastated. Unwanted. "I get it. I shouldn't have asked. You don't have to tell me. I'll let you go."
She's going to leave again. I can't let her. It's too cold and dark without her. "I'm not sorry," I burst out, blindly grabbing through the distance for her, surprising both of us. "I'd kiss you now if I could."
She's so quiet I wonder if she hung up but then I hear her breathlessly whisper, "What?" She sounds shocked, stunned. I don't blame her. I am, too. "You would?"
I'm almost afraid to say it, knowing all it will change. Megan gets hazy and blurry as I make the deliberate and terrifying choice to move towards Lexy. I'm intensely aware of the shift happening.
"Yeah. It's not the same here with you gone." I feel lightheaded as if I'm climbing at high altitude, looking dizzyingly down at the ground so far below me. My voice is jittery and shaky, my limbs weak from the trembling focus and intense exertion. But, it's too late to take it back now, and I continue tentatively forward into this new place. It doesn't hurt as much as I thought it would. Maybe the miles between us make me feel safer, brave, invincible.
"I'm not sorry either." Her voice is honey warm and sweet and reminds me of when she asked me not to let her go before we kissed. I'd have done anything for her in that moment. I still would. "I wish you were kissing me right now."
My gaze wanders back towards the spot where we had fallen and collapsed into each other. I can still taste the salt of her tears on my tongue, my own grief, our breath panting, gasping, drowning in the hunger for something we'd waited years and years to find. Her body, her every curve, pressed tight, fitting much too perfectly into my hands, clutching, shaking, melting against me and for me and around me. My gut clenches, every nerve in my body is on edge and tight. It's seriously too hot out here. The desire is a raw and thrilling punch, radiating through my system. I haven't felt it for someone in years.
"Me too," I murmur huskily, remembering the intensity and heat of that kiss, how I'd almost been knocked to the ground by the force of it all. "Don't hang up yet, okay?"
"I won't." When she finally speaks again, I notice the sadness is gone from her voice, and feel the pressure in my chest ease up. "Can you do something for me?" she asks softly, and I realize she understands exactly what I just gave her. She doesn't wait for me to answer. She already knows I'm helpless when it comes to her. We're still hiding and escaping into each other. "Please tell me something that has absolutely nothing to do with where I am right now."
It's then I have to admit I'd lied. Whatever is happening with us is far from over. Especially since it's in the middle of the night and I'm on the phone with a girl I'd spent the last two weeks telling myself to stay away from. But I can't let go of her. I need her too much. It's that simple and that complicated.
And so I do what she asks me to and tell her about ordinary life out here. I talk about the horses that came in, the new mower Ben bought for the grass, and a bunch of other little things I didn't realize I'd been waiting to share with her. We talk until sunrise. She finally falls asleep just as it's time for me to get up and head out to the barn. I don't hang up even when there is nothing but silence on the other end.
I sit on the porch, watching the sky lighten over the land, letting the sound of her breathing connect us. And for the first time in a long time, I think it's going to be a good day.