Forty-Two Minutes

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Chapter Three


Two days later, my mom finally wakes up.

I'm waiting for her when she does. I'd already known she was coming to. I'd heard her stumbling into the bathroom, heard her coughing until she gagged and choked. Spit. Retch. Violently vomit. The toilet flush. A clumsy, heavy thud against the wall that I know is her bracing for balance as she tries to stand. And then the shower running.

Almost an hour later, she shuffles into the kitchen, looking haggard and hungover. Her eyes are swollen, runny, and bloodshot, her skin mottled and blotchy. Her dark hair is wet and uncombed. She's wearing the navy blue robe my dad bought her for Christmas a few years back. Her feet are bare.

No one but me sees her this way. I keep the blinds and curtains closed. The morning light will be too bright and harsh for her. Our house stays shut and dark to the outside world.

My heart is heavy as I stand quietly by the counter and wait for her to realize I'm there. I'm used to her not seeing me even though I'm right in front of her. How on earth did we ever get here? I wonder, fighting back tears. I'm so tired. Even my bones ache. I don't want to do this. It's going to destroy her. I'm already shaking.

She used to be so beautiful, I think, as I watch her simply try to survive being alive. Is this really who she wanted to turn into? I realize I can't remember her sober. She's been drunk most of my life. I have a vague memory from years before of her singing me to sleep. As a child, I remember thinking she looked like one of the dark-haired fairy princesses in my storybooks. Her eyes are the clearest, purest green I have ever seen. They can see straight into you. I used to be able to look into them and see every part of myself. Now when I look at her, I can't find either one of us. Only the addiction is left and has stolen her away from me.

I know her routine and she follows it like clockwork. I feel like all I ever do is track time, counting her every step, breath, movement, trying to stay ahead of the next blackout. A pendulum swinging from one extreme to the other.

Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick tock.

She goes to the cabinet and gets the bottle of aspirin, pours three into her palm. She moves with the frailty of an eighty-year-old over to the coffee pot and pours herself a cup. She drinks it black, downs the aspirin. She won't be able to eat, not yet. Her ravaged system won't be able to handle it.

In about an hour, she'll ask me to make her a fried egg and dry toast. The protein and grease will absorb her nausea and help fight the migraine. But her favorite cure for the hangover is a Bloody Mary. I learned how to make them when I was seven.

She's like a quiet hurricane, slowly barreling through our lives, ruthlessly ripping up and flattening everything around us until there's nothing left. And we've just kept living in the destruction and debris, pretending we don't notice our house has fallen down around us.

"Morning, baby," she murmurs and brushes a clumsy kiss over my hair. No regret. No apology. No acknowledgment of what she's put me through. As if she hadn't just disappeared on me for days. As if I haven't been scared to death that she's stopped breathing or won't come out of it this time. Gingerly carrying her coffee, she sits down at the kitchen table, zones out, and stares off somewhere she never lets me follow.

Saying nothing, I walk over to the table and set the stack of letters down in front of her.

She's not sober enough for this conversation, but I don't think there will be a time she ever is. Because her mind is sluggish, it takes her a good two minutes to realize what she's looking at. I see the moment the reality registers, watch as her color slowly drains away, watch as even her lips go white. Her hands are visibly shaking as she picks up the letters, but I can't tell if it's from the hangover or the shock of me laying her past in front of her.

"Where did you get these?" she asks hoarsely. I've often wondered if the sound of her own voice hurts her, if every time she speaks she's reminded of where she comes from. It's still deeply southern, even with all the years she's lived in California. Her drawl stands out even more when she's drunk, and has no control over what is coming out of her mouth. It's the one part of her she can't change or get rid of, and proof she used to be someone else.

"In Dad's study." I keep my voice quiet so I don't trigger the migraine, and a wave of hysteria rises up at the irony of thinking a headache would be the worst of our problems. Who has conversations like this? I feel insane.

"His study?" she repeats dumbly, looking confused. "That's not where I put-" she suddenly gags, presses her arm to her mouth to swallow back a wave of nausea.

"Why did you lie to me?"

"I didn't mean-" she stammers. "You don't understand. I wanted to protect you," she manages to rasp out. She blindly reaches out for me, tightly grips my hand. Her face crumples as she begins to cry. "Please. You have to believe me. You don't know what it was like out there."

I wince as her nails cut into my skin. Her hands are clammy and cold, but she doesn't loosen her hold as if she can't dare let me go. "What happened to you?"

Her head is shaking frantically back and forth. "No, no, no, no," she blubbers, sounding small and pitiful. Like a cornered child. She looks so frightened. "Please don't do this to me. I can't tell you."

"Why?" I ask desperately. I still smell the vomit on her, the stench of the vodka that she can never get out of her skin. I don't know why people say it has no smell. It seeps out from her every pore. This can't be my life, I think helplessly. This madness can't be all there is. This can't be how she wants it to be. I kneel down next to her, hoping for one last attempt to break through. "Mom, please tell me. I want to understand. I love you. I want to help you."

"You can't help me." Tears stream down her cheeks, her nose is grossly running over her lips, chin, neck. She doesn't wipe them away. She's completely ruined. "No one can."

"Becca has been waiting for us all this time. She's written to us for years. Why won't you talk to her?"

"I can't." Her voice is suddenly empty of all emotion and my stomach drops as if I just fell off the edge of a cliff I should have seen coming. I can feel her spiraling further from me as her past creeps out from where it has been hiding. She no longer has anywhere to run. "You don't know what he did to us."

"Who?" I realize I'm literally on my knees begging her for answers. How has it come to this? "Please talk to me."

But she doesn't say anything. She's staring blearily down at the stack of letters in front of her. She almost reaches out to touch them, but then quickly pulls back as if afraid they will swallow her. Maybe they will. Her hand falls into her lap and she leans weakly back in the chair as if all her strength is gone. "You're going to go find her, aren't you?" she asks dully, her lips barely moving. "You're going to leave me. I told you one day you would."

"I'm sorry, but I have to." I blink back tears, wrestling violently against the guilt. I almost give in and swear I won't ever go. But I can't live like this anymore. I won't make it. None of us will. "I need to know the truth." I'm losing her again, I can feel her slipping away, sinking down into that bottomless abyss where no matter how hard I try I can't ever reach her and drag her back to the surface. "I want to know what happened."

When she finally looks over at me, her eyes are shockingly clear and steady on mine. She hardly ever makes eye contact with me anymore. Her self-hatred won't let her. It's one of the most lucid moments I've experienced with her in years. I almost could think she was sober. "I wish I could burn that place to the ground."

Five ... four .. three ...

The countdown starts ticking in my head. I can feel the warning sirens about to go off. I know the inevitable is coming. The meltdown is here before I can catch up and stop it.

Shoulders hunched, my mom heavily moves her chair back. I flinch as it scrapes loudly across the floor. She gets unsteadily to her feet, sways, has to grab onto the table before she falls, her palms leaving sweaty imprints on the wood. I immediately reach out to help her, to somehow keep her with me, but she slaps at my hand and pushes me off, another attempt to punish and make me pay.

...two ... one ...

That was fast, I think, wearily. My mom hasn't even been awake for two hours yet and is already spiraling back down into the blackness.

She stumbles away from me, bracing herself against the wall as she weaves and staggers back to her room. I jolt when the door slams and locks. I want to run down the hall and bang the door down but even if I got in, it still wouldn't do any good. She's already made her choice and I realize my last shred of hope is gone. I don't even cry. I'm not sure I have any tears left.

I'm already packed and call an Uber. There's nothing left for me here. There's nothing else I can do. I'm surprisingly calm, considering the destruction I'm causing. I can't seem to feel anything anymore. Maybe I'm in shock. Or maybe I'm just suicidal and can't care. I've thought about it. In the darkest places of my mind, I've thought about exactly how I would do it. But I couldn't ever go through with it. Who would keep her alive if I wasn't?

I have to go before I change my mind. I'm terrified to leave, but it's the only way I know how to help her. I have to find out what happened to her. I have to understand why and how she ended up like this. Maybe I'm delusional in thinking I'm going to find that one thing that is going to miraculously bring her back to me, but I have to try. I have to believe it even if it's futile. I don't know what else to hang onto.

I've heard the truth will set you free. I just hope once I find it, it doesn't end up killing us.

Pulling out the letter that was addressed to me, I leave the rest on the table for my dad to find when he comes home. It's the only explanation he will need. He must have known I would leave once I found them. Is this why he put them in the drawer for me? Is this the only way he knew how to help me? I wish I could ask him, but I can't wait any longer. If I do, I'm afraid I won't go. I had used his credit card to pay for the ticket to Nashville. He'd given it to me to use in case of an emergency. I think this qualifies as one. Gathering my things, I walk out the front door, closing it quietly behind me.

As I lock the door, I realize I've never been keeping her safe. I've been keeping everyone on the outside safe from us.

The car pulls up. I get in and we drive away from my ordinary suburban house on my ordinary street where it looks like nothing out of the ordinary could ever happen. I keep my eyes focused straight ahead and don't dare let myself look back.
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