Forty-Two Minutes

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Chapter Twenty-Nine


I never thought the first time I saw the ocean would be the day I dropped my sister off at rehab.

We say our goodbyes in the lobby as the staff checks her suitcases for stashed alcohol, weapons she can hurt herself with, inspects each and every bottle, her deodorant, tubes of makeup, tampons. They confiscate her mouthwash when they discover it's a brand with alcohol in it. I've already been patted down, my purse searched. Security is tight.

Victoria is visibly shaking as we hug. I feel her trembling against me. "I'll see you soon," I promise, trying to reassure and comfort her. Her eyes are wide, glassy, her breathing shallow. I don't think you're ever ready for something like this, and keep my arms tight around her, giving her something secure to hold onto. "I love you."

"I love you, too," she whispers, cringing as they rifle through her underwear and delicates. For a place that is anonymous there is no privacy for the people who are admitted here. I notice her blushing, and empathize with how violating and invasive this feels for her. Her rights were left behind at the front doors.

She releases me and turns to Richard and Lexy, desperately latching on as if seeking protection. They huddle together, holding hands, and clinging to one another. It's a sweet relief to see how close and connected they are. They will need each other to get through this. I will stay a few more days, just in case, until I know she's settled and staying and still willing to be sober. I don't want her to hurt herself again. I'm grateful her every move will be monitored.

The facility grants permission to wear her locket and wedding ring, explaining it helps to have personal reminders of the people you are trying to get clean for. Richard puts both on her himself, kissing her as if proposing as he slides the ring on her finger. The exchange is so tender, so intense and intimate, tears fill my eyes, and I quietly step outside to give them a moment to themselves.

Fresh air fills my lungs as I take a deep breath and walk out into the bright California sunshine. Wiping my tears, I lift my face and let the golden rays warm my skin. The glare off the water is dazzling and blinding, and I put my sunglasses on to shield my eyes. All the stories I heard growing up were true about the breathtaking beauty of the Pacific Ocean.

The treatment center is tucked up in the Malibu hills, high above the loud, hectic bustle of the city. Palm trees stand in a tall, crooked line, their leaves spiking up against the wide, blue cloudless sky. I scan the horizon looking out across miles of sparkling waves. The scenery is so different from the flat green acres of our ranch. The breeze is light and a bit cool and smells of sand and seaweed, and I can taste a hint of salt on my lips.

It feels good to be out of the hospital. The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of worry and wondering and waiting. I've barely had a second to think. And, now, here we are. I still can't believe Victoria is agreeing to do it, but I think, after her overdose, she realizes she has no other choice. I turn away from the view and look up at the blue logo, A New Start, above the doors of the treatment facility. Waves jut off the side of the letters as if rising. It's a nice, hopeful touch.

The staff is kind and understanding, but strict, and you are only allowed so far past the front desk. Rules and routines will be enforced and followed. It is rehab, after all. I'm very aware of the fact of how easily I could have been the one admitted to a place like this if I had made different choices. The thought haunts me.

Even outside, I still have the sense of being watched. Security guards stand near the front door and around the grounds in case of conflicts or confrontations between staff and patients. They also make sure no one from the outside tries to sneak in any drugs or alcohol and keep a close eye on everything and everyone who enters and exits the property. I'm at the edge of how far the residents are allowed to go. There's another gate we pass through to be granted permission to leave the facility. Cameras are on the roof and I wonder if they recognize the same darkness in me that my sister wrestles against. We come from the same bad seed. Feeling exposed, I turn back towards the stunning, serene view of the water.

The beauty makes me homesick for the land and horses, the heat and humidity. My own bed. Ben. I wish he were here to share this with me. I miss him terribly. He's too far, hundreds of miles from my reach. I've never been away from him this long.

Hearing the doors open behind me, I turn, thinking it might be Lexy. Richard steps out. He's alone. Seeing me, he walks over, seeming glad to have someone he recognizes, even if we barely know each other. I think he's a bit shaken up.

"She's all checked in?" I ask when he's in earshot.

He nods, looking dazed and overwhelmed. He has a dark blue folder in his hand with the facility information and a schedule for their family sessions and visitor rules. "They just took her back to her room."

I notice how pale he is. "You okay?"

He seems surprised that I would ask. We're family, but not friends. He sighs, shakes his head. "Don't exactly do something like this every day."

Who does? I wonder. Probably more people than we realize, and I bet all of them thought it would never happen to them. "No, I guess not." I turn and look back towards the double doors. They are tinted dark for privacy and anonymity. "Where's Lexy?"

"They needed her signature on one of the forms, and then she was going to the restroom. It's almost an hour back down into the valley. She'll be out in a minute." He falls quiet again, gazes out over the water, and I wonder if he feels as awkward as I do. "At least Victoria will have this view to look at for the next month."

We stand side by side, but we couldn't be further apart. "It's definitely beautiful here." I watch a seagull soar and skim over the waves, dive under, the foam splashing as it penetrates and disappears beneath the surface. It re-emerges less than a minute later, drifting and bobbing along with the tides, seemingly happy and content with its catch. The simplicity soothes. "First time I've ever seen the ocean so it's worth the trip."

"You've never been?" He's asking as someone who is used to being around water instead of farmland and horses.

"The nearest beach to our ranch is about a six hour drive. We're inland, " I explain, even though I already know he doesn't relate to the geography of East and Middle and West Tennessee. Country life is a foreign concept to him. He doesn't seem like the farm type. "It's nothing like this."

I'm not sure what to say next. We've run out of small talk, and the only thing we have in common is Lexy and Victoria, which is a whole other can of worms. I haven't been alone with him since arriving in California. With all the chaos and confusion, I haven't had a moment to give much thought to more than just praying Victoria stays alive. But, now, it's only the two of us, outside a rehab center, waiting to find out where our lives have finally landed after the tornado has passed. Debris from unresolved family history is everywhere.

One of us has to offer the olive branch, I realize. We're both here with no way out. And I have years of things to say. Sunlight streams from behind him, around him, bringing out the grey in his hair, shadowing and accentuating the lines of grief and stress in his face. His eyes are rimmed red from crying, causing the blue to shine more brilliantly. He's handsome in one of those effortless ways men like him don't have to think about. He still looks like a lawyer even dressed down in casual tan slacks and a black polo shirt.

I can feel him wanting to explain himself to me, to defend himself, but he doesn't. It's almost as if he's accepted the judgment and condemnation he's so certain I've placed on him. He isn't wrong. I have thought exactly what he thinks I have. But, now, face to face with him, all I feel is pity. Watching him with Lexy and Victoria over the last few weeks has changed my mind about him, helped me see him in a new light. He never once left their side.

"Lexy told me you are taking a little more time off work."

He glances at me and nods, the tension in the air easing a bit now that one of us finally said something. "Just until we see how all this goes. I'm still checking in every day, and am consulting on some cases, but have handed most of the load over to one of my associates. We're going to be back and forth here for the family therapy sessions so I wanted to make sure I was available."

"That's probably a good idea. When do you come back?"

He opens the folder and looks at the schedule, the breeze rustling the papers. "Wednesday is our first meeting. And we will be here on Saturdays for visitor days."

"I didn't think they would let you visit so soon."

"Me neither, but they said it's good for her. It will help her feel more supported and know she's not alone. We just have to make sure we follow the rules." He closes the folder, tucks it under his arm.

I hear what he's not saying. Them being here will give her something to live for and a reason to stay sober. "Seems like there's a lot of them in there." I glance behind me at the security guards again. They stare straight ahead but I know they miss nothing. Uneasy, I deliberately look back towards Richard. "I imagine it will be reassuring for you and Lexy to be able to see her."

He nods. "When do you have to fly home?"

"Tuesday morning, but I told them I'd call in if they need me to for any of the sessions. The front desk has my numbers." The breeze has picked up and strands of my hair are blowing across my face, and I push my sunglasses up on top of my head to hold them back. I feel like he needs to see my eyes. Or maybe I want to see his. He watches me closely, carefully, reading me, his gaze penetrating, riveting, and I wonder if he looks at people in court the same way. He knows how to put people at ease, disarm them, and I can see why he's a good lawyer. I read he was the youngest to make partner in his firm. Ironic how you can be so successful when the rest of your life is falling apart, but I guess if you're failing at one thing, you desperately seek control somewhere else. "What about school for Lexy? Isn't she supposed to start soon?"

"Yeah, next week. She's going to do this semester online. It's easier for now. There's just a lot we don't know yet."

"Taking it one day at a time?" I ask.

He shrugs helplessly. "What else do we do?"

He's so lost, I realize, my heart softening a little more. I feel strangely protective of him. Addiction is an odd way to level the ground between people. I realize I haven't wanted to like him, and have held a barrier up between us all this time. I have blamed him for the years of silence, believing he agreed with my sister's reasons, not understanding the fear and consequences he was up against. The walls between us begin to shift, erode, crumble. "I don't know," I murmur quietly.

"Thank you for being here. It's really helped. I know it's meant a lot to Victoria. And of course, Lexy."

"It's meant a lot to me, too." I look at him and decide it's time to lay it all out, break through the ice, the past, all the years of silence and misunderstanding. And all the things I understood much too perfectly and painfully. "Lexy told me you gave her my letters. Thank you for doing that."

He faces me then, fully, completely, hiding nothing, and I almost back up from his intensity. I'm surprised at how easily he lets his guard down as if he's been waiting for me to ask him to. His eyes are heartbreakingly earnest as they meet mine. "I wanted Lexy to find you. It was the only way I knew how to save her. To save both of them. I knew how important your letters were. Victoria needed them even if she didn't know how to tell you or reach out. Maybe I was doing it for all of you. Thank you for taking care of her."

I smile tenderly, thinking of my niece. "It was kind of the other way around. She's a great girl."

He glances behind him at the doors, as if wanting to make sure Lexy is never far off, and still safe. "Yes, she is."

"I appreciate you bringing the letters Victoria wrote back to me." I had stayed up all night, reading every single one. I sobbed as she wrote about her fear and the nightmares and her drinking. She knew it was getting out of control and didn't know how to stop it. It was as if I was her secret diary all these years, just like when we were young. She's always been the one person I've trusted most.

"I didn't even know she was writing you. But, I think it helped her. Even if she never sent them."

"I'm guessing she didn't really talk about what happened to us."

"Some of it. But there was so much she wouldn't tell me. And then the drinking took over. Sometimes I think it made things better," he murmurs absently, and I don't think he meant to say it out loud. I see the flicker of disgust when his words occur to him and he shakes his head, appalled at himself. They are absurd but they somehow make sense to me, too. I lived it, and know all too well how chaos can somehow become normal. You get used to it. He rubs his hand over his face. "That's such a sick thing to say. I know that. But it took away her pain and just for a minute she didn't have to feel or remember any of it. I didn't know how to help her. But somehow the drinking did." His eyes are dark, dull as he stares at the front doors of the rehab center. "Until it didn't." He looks back at me, his expression anguished. "I'm sorry I couldn't get her to come back to you. I swear I tried."

He is asking for more than me just to believe him. He wants my forgiveness, for someone to finally let him off the hook where he's been dangling for over twenty years. I wonder when the last time he was asked how he felt, what he wanted, how close he was to losing his mind. He's no different than me. He's just hiding under a different porch. He looks so young and stranded as he says it, so vulnerable. My heart aches for him. I know exactly what it's like to love someone even as they are destroying you. I want to hug him but make myself stand still. Maybe we have more in common than I thought. "I understand."

He lets out an unsteady breath as if I handed him permission to finally release the past. "Can I ask you something?"

I nod. He's surprisingly easy to talk to. I hadn't thought he would be. I was wrong in a lot of ways about him. "Sure."

"How didn't you end up like her? You grew up in that house, too. Why didn't you drink?" He hesitates, his eyes apologetic. "You can tell me it's none of my business."

"No, it's fine. I ask myself that all the time." I shrug, thinking back over my life, every choice and decision and chance. All I can see is my father at each crossroad. His face and fists made me who I am today, for better or worse. "I saw what the drinking did to all of us, and I never wanted to turn out like him. I always knew there was a good possibility I could, so I just never drank."

"Never?" He asks, his voice incredulous. "Not once?"

I shake my head. "No. Not one sip. There's not even any alcohol in our house. After daddy died, Ben helped me dump out every last bottle. It took us a while but we finally found them all."

"We're doing that now. I've already thrown out most of it." He looks past me, towards the direction of where his house is as if he can see it from up here, thinking all the corners, cushions, cabinets where she stashed her supply. "I hope anyway. She has a lot of hiding places."

"They usually do," I murmur, thinking of daddy tucking bottles of Wild Turkey under floorboards in the storehouse. He was a mean, sad, desperate drunk. "It's strangely cleansing."

He seems to think about it. "Yeah, it is." He studies me as if realizing he's found an ally and fellow survivor. I can't help thinking how different he is from Ben. He's intense, charismatic, a lot like Victoria. People always stop and stare whenever she walks into a room. I've never possessed the same presence as her. Mama always said she'd have her name in lights one day. Ben is calm and steady, a solid rock, ruggedly handsome, salt of the earth type. I can't wait to get back home to him. "I guess we'll be seeing you in Tennessee whenever she's released. I saw the pictures you sent. It looks like a beautiful place."

I nod. "It is. I think it's going to be a really important part of her healing and recovery. That land is why she's here." I motion over my shoulder at the treatment center. "Hopefully she will be able to handle it."

"We'll see," he murmurs, and I think he will be saying that a lot in the uncertainty of the days ahead. "I hear it's pretty hot and humid there."

"Yeah, but you get used to it." I shrug, smile. "Sort of."

"I'm looking forward to finally meeting Ben."

Even his name makes my heart beat faster. "You'll like him. Everyone does."

He sends me a sly glance. "And Nick?"

I can't help laughing a little. Lexy told me how Nick called her and they stayed up all night talking. He's still texting her, sending pictures of Glory, and saying a few other things that make Lexy blush and tilt her phone away so none of us can see. I'm happy to see the nudge I told Ben to give him worked. Or in Nick's case, a swift kick in his stubborn pants. Watching Lexy's face light up is a precious distraction. For a few moments, she gets to simply be a young, normal girl who likes a boy. And they will be good for each other. Wounded finding wounded. Funny how you always seem to recognize your own.

"Yeah, something tells me you'll be hearing a lot more about him." My smile widens a little more at his concerned expression. "Don't worry, he's a good guy."

I know he wants to ask more but doesn't, and wonder when he will finally feel like he's her father again, or if he's ever felt like one. "So, now what do we do?" he asks, but I feel as if he's talking more to himself.

"I have no idea. But I do know one thing." I reach out my hand to shake his. "It was nice to finally meet you."

He looks startled and studies me as if trying to figure out if I'm serious. After a moment, he smiles for the first time in weeks and takes my hand in his. "It's nice to meet you, too."

Lexy comes out of the doors, and we both look as she walks over to us. I notice her take a deep breath and let it out as the view of the ocean greets her. I have the thought she's been waiting to breathe freely for the last eighteen years. I feel the burden lift off her and imagine she's relieved to finally have someone else carry it for her. Her cheeks are pink and flushed from crying. I know how worried she is for Victoria. She notices the guards and her steps quicken to put distance between her and them. I think they make her nervous, too, and reach out my hand and she takes it as soon as she's close enough.

"They are going to let mom keep her phone," she says.

"Really?" Richard asks. "I didn't think they would."

"Yeah, the lady at the front desk just told me. They will monitor her though. But she can still call and text us."

"That's good." Richard smiles, relieved to still have contact with his wife.

"Here's her room number." She pulls a card with writing on it out of the back pocket of her jeans, hands it to Richard and he puts it in the folder. "They said she's going to meet her sponsor today."

"Her sponsor," Richard repeats numbly, and I feel him trying to process and keep up with the heavy reality of where we are. "It's all really happening." I notice him stand a little closer to Lexy as if trying to shield her, and maybe himself. "Are you okay? I know this is a lot to deal with."

Lexy nods. "I'm alright," she reassures him. "I'm just glad she's finally here."

"Me too," he says, still watching her, checking and rechecking. I can tell he's trying to make up for lost time, and is afraid of losing her again. We're all balancing on breaking branches, struggling to find solid ground. "Are you hungry? You haven't eaten anything since last night."

"Yeah, a little."

He looks at me. "Would you like to come over and have lunch with us? We don't have a lot in the house right now, but maybe we can order pizza or something."

I realize he needs it, the connection, normalcy, stability in a situation where there is still so much uncertainty. Something to do to keep from going crazy during the time in between the days they can come see Victoria. I'm not ready to be alone yet either. The hotel room is too quiet and lonely. Pizza is familiar and comforting. Pizza is what a family eats together. "That sounds perfect," I say. Lexy smiles at me, squeezes my hand.

Richard nods and we head down the hill towards the parking lot. We have the luxury of being able to leave. We all try not to notice the camera angling and zooming in on us as we exit the grounds. The guards check our ID at the gate but let us go. As we drive away, I take one last glance at the ocean, hoping the next time I see it won't be at a rehab facility. We make small talk about the weather and how pretty the view is. Ordinary, almost boring, mindless things. I think we need a break from the stress. None of us acknowledges how we're all waiting for Victoria to decide where this one day at a time will take us.
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