I definitely have not missed the heat. Sweat glistens on my upper lip, and I can taste the dust, the grit, the moisture of the irrigated soil and pastures in the back of my throat. Cicadas swarm constantly, their whirring song still so familiar.
Scents of jasmine, gardenia and honeysuckle drift over to me on the slight breeze, and are a sweet syrup on my tongue.
My energy drains as the humidity falls over me and seeps through my clothes, dampening my shirt and jeans, perspiration trickles slowly down the base of my spine.
Even late in September, the air is warm, sticky and muggy. The weather will turn crisp and cool when October comes, and the seasons predictably change the land, but for now, the last days of summer stubbornly hang on and linger.
Needing the constant reminder, I uncurl my fist and stare down at my thirty day chip in my hand. The serenity prayer is engraved on the back. I'm gripping onto it so tightly, indentions chafe and redden my skin.
The coin is proof of my sobriety, freedom, breakthrough and healing. My strength, courage and ability to overcome and defeat the bottle. One day at a time.
I made it through to the other side, and keep the coin with me at all times as a reminder and anchor, weapon and shield for when temptation and the nightmares come.
For the last month, I've wrestled myself to the ground getting clean and sober, doing my inventory, attending every AA meeting, walking through the twelve steps, digging down deep, confessing my sins, and facing my past.
And, now, everything I've worked for has lead me to the one place I fear the most, and spent my entire life trying to forget. I fiercely hope thirty days is long enough for what I'm now up against.
The house stands before me; paint chipped and peeling, wood warped and white and old, resilient against time and tears and tragedy and history.
As a child, I used to pray for a twister to come ripping through and blow it down, fervently wishing every part of this land would be torn away and destroyed so there was no trace of him left; no memories, no past, no drinking, no fear. Everything would be gone, completely wiped out until it was unrecognizable. Until I was.
But this home, the land, the porch, the stench of him, is still here, and now, so am I.
Every window, board, nail, and blade of grass, is a reminder of the terror and trauma. I can hear his voice bellowing and slurring down the hall, whiskey sloshing, stairs creaking as he staggered closer to our room, his boots thudding heavy and threatening, my sister's desperate whispers as we huddled together under the damp, moldy porch, the only light coming through the gaps and slats between the boards, the crack of his palm slapping across my face.
He hasn't laid a hand on me in over twenty years, but I still flinch as if I'm being struck.
Nothing has changed, and yet, everything has. It's a strange reality to try and reconcile myself to who I used to be, and who I am now.
I haven't stepped foot on this land since I was eighteen, but I still know all four corners from east to west and back again that belong to the Montgomery family line. Each acre and perimeter post and boundary marker is engraved into my blood, passed down to me through the generations.
I'm tied to this house, no matter how far I go or how long I'm gone. In some ways, it knows me better than I know myself. I left a part of me behind when I ran that day, and it's been waiting all this time for me to come back and pick up the scattered, wounded pieces.
Letting out a shuddering breath, I pull out my phone from my pocket, my hands trembling as I send Andie a text to let her know we arrived safely and are about to go inside.
Her response is immediate, reassuringly so, and I take a small amount of comfort in her reminding me how far I've come, how proud she is of me, and she's only a call away.
My trust in her over the last month has become absolute and unwavering. She has walked with me through the darkness, the screaming close calls and cravings, the gritty, gross depths of recovery, and I willingly followed her out into a new life.
But, as much as I want to think I've grown and learned and become, this place brings me instantly to my knees, as if I'm a scared little girl again, hiding under porches and under beds and cowering in the corner.
I refuse to believe I'm the same person I was when I left over twenty years ago. I'm still his daughter, but I'm not a drunk anymore. I made it out of the pit. He didn't completely destroy me, no matter how hard he tried.
I've spent years trying to drown out his voice in my head telling me I was never going to amount to anything, that I was exactly like him, and would never be able to get away from him. I'm desperate to prove him wrong.
The time has come to face the past, the abuse, and myself. Without the vodka.
"Are you ready to go inside?" Richard asks, standing next to me. I must look as vulnerable as I feel because he seems concerned and takes my hand. His is warm and safe and solid and I weave my fingers tightly into his, securing me to the ground where I stand. My legs feel as if they are about to give out beneath me and I'm grateful to have him to hold onto.
Everything in me wants to say no, to run as fast and far as I can. Glancing behind me, I scan down the gnarled line of oak trees that always seemed nostalgic and romantic as I passed under their ancient branches, the lush green wild grasses where we would run for cover, my granddaddy Beau's gate that he and Adelaide built themselves, his boot still perched in an invitation, out to the shimmering, long road just beyond.
I could escape, but I know I would never be free. I'm tired of hiding, and force myself to stay where I am.
Turning back towards Richard, I hear myself say, "Ready as I'll ever be." My voice is a bit breathless and shaky and still not as certain as I'd like. Lexy is on my other side, close and watchful of me, and it's comforting to have them both here.
Becca is standing at the front door. Keeping my eyes only fixed on her, I hold onto my family as we walk the rest of the way up the dusty lane. We pass the old oak tree where the tire swing still dangles, up the porch steps where we spent hours hiding underneath in the sweltering heat, the post where our names are jaggedly etched and carved as we waited for the coast to be clear, until I finally reach my sister who has always been on this land, waiting for my prodigal return.
Relief and fear are both bitter tastes in my mouth as she embraces me, holds on tight. I don't look at anything else but her eyes, just like always, and before, forever like we promised.
"Hi, honey," she says, her voice warm and soothing, and reminds me of all those nights clinging to each other in the dark. "I'm so glad you're here." Still keeping me close, as if she knows how badly I want to flee, she opens the screen for us. It groans exactly how I know it will, and I instinctively want to lay low. Daddy was always waiting just on the edge of my blind spots. "Let's get you all inside. This heat will melt you where you stand."
As I walk through the front door, the sights, scents, memories, swirl, rush up, swallow and surround me, much too sharp and vivid and clear.
Time seems to have stood still in this house. Even the stains on the faded floral wallpaper are the same. Old photographs of my family scatter the wall by the narrow staircase, and I recognize each name and face without having to look. The wooden floor is worn and scarred and creaks under my feet in all the places I remember.
I know the layout of each room with my eyes closed, retracing my steps, rewinding time, recalling the nooks and crannies where we crouched and cried. The handbuilt cupboard where mama kept her spices and the loose floorboards where daddy hid his bottles. The faint scent of Tabu perfume that Grandma Rose used to wear waits around corners like a lost, forgotten ghost in these haunted halls.
This house built me, molded and shaped me into who I am today. For better and for worse. I wonder if it has remembered me, missed me, if I turned out how it thought I would.
Tension burns, swells, builds in my belly, my chest, my bones, anticipation of an inevitable showdown coming. He's waiting for me here, beckoning me, daring me to challenge and face him, and I wonder if he somehow knew I was coming for him.
Becca is still in front of me, gently smiling, waiting to take us upstairs and get settled. From a glazed over place in my mind, I watch her lips move as she tells us Ben and Nick are still out on the south side of the ranch, but are heading back in, and dinner will be ready in an hour.
The chatter soundlessly hovers around me, above my head, not registering or sinking in. My ears are ringing; white noise, muffled, hollow, echoing. I'm grateful Richard and Lexy fill in the humming silence for me.
My shoulders are tight and I realize I haven't taken a breath in a few moments. Senses overloaded, shocked and overwhelmed, my feet seem to be stuck and frozen in the same spot. A wild animal cornered. I resent that I don't feel stronger, that he can trigger and trip me up so easily.
Falling back on the calming techniques Andie taught me, I breathe in deep, mentally count to ten, and let it slowly out. And then do it three more times until my muscles loosen and the buzzing in my head stops.
Feeling a little more steady, I again look down at my sobriety chip clutched in my hand, desperately seeking the reminder that I'm different now, and am not going to fall back into old habits.
Feet shuffle and bodies shift, brushing against mine, bringing me back to the present, and I realize we're moving forward, deeper into the house. Steeling myself, I make myself focus and follow my family up the stairs, past the photos of my family tree, their eyes watching, and seeming to whisper and warn me, each step conjuring grainy images of long ago.
Becca makes small talk with us about how our flight was, and the drive in from town, as if she knows I need the distraction as we reach the landing on the second floor. The air is heavy, thick, musty, as if the heat, my thoughts, pain and fear, are all trapped in these walls. If they could talk they would only be able to weep.
I still can't say much, trying not to see what I know is waiting for me, as she leads us past mama and daddy's old bedroom where they fought and she begged him to stop hitting her.
She has Lexy take our childhood bedroom, with the window seat and the closet where we hid, and I'm grateful not to have to face it yet as Lexy goes to put her suitcase away. I know she's eager to see Glory. And, of course Nick. I'm more than a little curious to meet him. He's all she talks about.
"I thought you'd like to be in Grandma Rose's old room," Becca says to me, as she opens the door to the far back bedroom. "She always loved the morning light in here."
Stepping inside, the room is warm, and smells of lemon dust cleaner, cedar from the hope chest in the corner, and the lilac potpourri satchels hidden within its drawers. A hazy memory of us searching for secret treasure within the velvet pockets flits through my mind.
The white wrought iron bed and handmade quilt are the same, as is the high back antique rocking chair near the window facing the fields. Her silver brush and mirror set is still on the dressing vanity next to her collection of crystal perfume bottles. Lightly tracing my fingers over the ornate handle, I think of when Grandma Rose used to brush and braid our hair before bedtime. She would sing to us to soothe our bad dreams and frightened tears.
This was always my favorite room, too, and I wonder if Becca knew it would comfort me. It's quieter, safer and lighter than the rest of the house, far enough away from where daddy used to sleep, and the view of the horses and pastures is peaceful.
"It's perfect," I answer, attempting a smile, not really pulling it off, wanting to help Becca feel better. I know how hard she's trying to make this as easy as possible for me.
"Good. I'll let you both get settled. I'm going to go finish dinner," she says, understanding I need a minute to take all of it in. "Come down when you're ready." She quietly closes the door, and I hear the sound of her footsteps treading and fading. Hers I recognize, and was always so relieved when I used to hear her coming to my rescue.
Alone, Richard turns to me, his blue eyes seeming to glow in the soft violet light. Daylight savings is making the rays of sun leave faster, shadows slinking and lengthening along the wide plank floors, inching closer to where my feet stand. "You ok?"
It's a minute to minute question, I realize. I want so badly to believe I am. "I'm trying to be." The window is open, bringing in the fragrant scents of fertile, plowed earth, and I turn to look out at the wide, open acres. The green here is unlike anywhere else, and achingly beautiful and bittersweet. As a little girl, I sat at this window for hours, dreaming of my escape. "At least I made it through the front door."
Nodding, he comes up beside me, puts his hand on my back. His touch calms, eases my frazzled nerves. "Yeah, you did. It's a big step."
One of many I will have to take and face here. Leaning closer to him, I absorb his body heat, his strength, his protection, and he holds me tighter just as I need him to. "How is this so much harder than getting clean?"
"Because everything that happened here is the reason you drank in the first place."
He's right. And now I'm facing the fear and abuse without a bottle. But, I'm not empty handed, I suddenly realize. I'm not alone. My family is here, Andie is a text and call away. I'm clean and sober. I tighten my hold on my chip, the shape and pressure of it reassuring as it presses deep into my sweaty palm. I keep it between us as I look up at him. "Thank you for coming with me."
His gaze holds mine as the last glimmer of daylight disappears behind the trees, dimming the room, turning us into silhouettes against the sky. I'm relieved he will be here when darkness falls. The house changes at night, as if it's breathing and alive. "Thank you for letting me," he answers, softly.
There's so much to say but I don't have the words yet. They feel too big and raw and painful, hanging in the air around us, with the ghosts and dust covered memories. Thoughtful and pensive, I fall quiet again, as I look out over the land that is both a birthright and my most heaviest burden.
I very much understand I'm up against the biggest test and fight of my life. I'm not sure yet which one of us will make it through this still standing.
Daddy, the bottle, or me.