Forty-Two Minutes

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Chapter Thirty-Three

VICTORIA

It's late, a little after one in the morning. I can't sleep. Jet lag and traumatic childhood flashbacks are not a great combination for a recovering alcoholic.

The house is eerily quiet and still, and I can feel the eyes of the past scouring each room, hovering, closing in, searching for me. As if it knows there's a score to settle and a long-overdue reckoning coming.

Stepping out onto the front porch, I take in a deep breath, the air warm and fragrant, but it doesn't soothe or calm me. There's not even a breeze.

Wrapping my arms crisscrossed like caution tape around my waist, I stare out into the night, feeling a bit panicked by the open space. I miss the safe cocoon of rehab where I knew what to do and expect and each day was regulated by routines.

I've been preparing for this trip for months, but facing what happened here on my own is a whole other test of my will.

I haven't been back twenty-four hours yet and already feel shaky. What if I can't handle it and I fail?

Unsettled, I feel a shiver crawl up the back of my neck as I weakly lower myself to the porch steps.

My only solace is at least now I'm not underneath them.

A lullaby mama used to sing to us when we were little floods back to me, the images harsh and sharp against my sober mind as I'm carried backward by time into a place I'm not ready to remember.

Rock a bye baby, in the treetop, when the wind blows, the cradle will rock. When the bough breaks the cradle will fall. And down will come baby, cradle and all.

Over and over, the swaying melody plays through my mind, the sad, haunting sound of her voice warm in my ear. After daddy passed out, and the coast was clear, she would come to get us from underneath the porch and clutch us against her, humming softly to try and comfort us even though she was the one bleeding.

With tears in her eyes and fresh bruises on her face, she would promise everything would be alright and we would say we believed her so she would stop crying.

The memory is so real and vivid it's as if I could touch her, feel the patched, worn cotton of her dress, her body trembling, the pungent sweat of her fear and desperation. I can't seem to shake the words or the brokenness in her eyes. I haven't thought of that song in years.

A lazy, sleepy groan catches my attention, pulling me out of the past and back to the present, and I look over at the old lab dozing under the porch swing. He's been keeping a close watch on me ever since I arrived. He seems to have woken himself up with his own snore and his eyes squint open to check on me before settling back into a nap. I feel oddly reassured having him nearby.

The screen door creaks behind me. I used to jump at the sound, knowing it meant he was coming. I'd learned early to have eyes in the back of my head and start running before his shadow was close.

My ears perk and tune in as I hear footsteps padding softly across the wood, but I don't have to turn around to know it's Becca. We've always felt and recognized each other's movements. Even when we were thousands of miles away from each other.

"I heard you get up." She softly brushes her hand over my shoulder. She's one of the few I trust enough to touch me. "I made us some chamomile tea." She hands me a mug. A jolly fat man in an apron and chef's hat and the words Kiss the Cook is painted on it. "This was always mama's magic cure for everything. She swore it would help us sleep."

Needing warmth, I wrap the mug in both hands. "I don't want to sleep," I say, watching the steam curl up like ghosts. A few months ago, I was drowning out my thoughts with vodka and pills. Herbal tea seems like such a weak weapon against my pain. Plastic swords at a gunfight. "I don't want to see his face."

"I know," she says gently as she sits down next to me. I notice she's wearing an oversized Tennessee State football T-shirt that I'm guessing is Ben's and faded pink pajama shorts underneath. With her hair pulled up off her face in a messy bun, she looks like she could be in high school. She'd inherited mama's natural beauty and sweetness. I feel a hundred years older than her. It's comfortable enough out that we don't need layers yet. But, the seasons are changing. "How was your AA meeting?"

This is now a typical conversation for me, I realize, tracing my finger over the smooth ceramic handle of my mug. I never thought it would be. Recovery has become all I think about and depend on. "Good. It helped."

"Nice that you can do it online. Especially all the way out here."

"Yeah, Andie sent me the link."

Becca blew on her tea, waiting for it to cool. "I like her."

"So do I." I shake my head. "Who would've thought." In the glow of the porch light, I catch the concern in her eyes, and feel guilty she still bears so much responsibility and is afraid to let me out of her sight. "Don't worry, I'm not going to drink. He's not going to win that easily."

Her legs are touching mine and I wonder if it will forever be a habit for us to crouch and cling close. "I just know how hard it is for you to be back."

An ironic laugh escapes my lips. "Hard doesn't even begin to cover it." I look at her, thinking of all the times we hid underneath these very steps in our filthy clothes, bare feet, and hungry bellies, uselessly hoping and praying for something to change. "I still don't know how you're able to stay here."

"Where else would I go?" she asks, a weary acceptance in her voice as she holds my stare. "We grew up on this ranch. It's been in our family for generations. This is the only home I've ever known."

Resentment simmers beneath my skin. "This place was never a home. If you and mama hadn't been here I would have left long before I did." On the edge of losing control, I force myself to breathe and deliberately find a focal point high above in the trees and stare hard at it to keep me from spiraling. My hands are shaking and I hold the mug tighter. The heat on my palms is soothing and the flowery scent of the tea reminds me of my mother. Her kindness, her undying loyalty, her sacrifices, her weakness, and fear. It's all interchangeable. "How she stayed with him all those years is beyond me."

"Maybe she didn't know where else to go either. She was born and raised here just like we were."

"What is it about this land?" I ask into thin air. "It's like it owns us." She doesn't answer and I don't expect her to as we fall into a throbbing silence. But, I never minded the quiet with her. "Do you think he was ever sorry for what he did to us?"

Becca sighs. "I want to think so. Sometimes I wonder if that's why he drank so much. Because he couldn't face us or mama."

"I guess that's one more thing he'll never be able to tell us," I say, my voice dull. We both sit with the heavy helplessness of all the things still unresolved. Because there's nothing we can do, I look away, feeling how futile it all is. "Did you know his mama died when he was two?"

"I remember hearing that, but he hardly told us anything, and he wouldn't ever let mama talk about it."

"I did some research on our family tree while I was in rehab. It was one of our assignments to help us get to the root of why we drink. I went online and found out her name was Elizabeth and she died of influenza. She was only twenty."

Becca winces, her eyes pained. "That's so young."

"Way too young," I agree. "His daddy was named William. After her death, they had to leave their farm. I think he'd already started drinking from the grief and couldn't keep up with all that had to be done. The bank came and claimed it. They moved around a lot so the records after that time are a bit sketchy, but I read William died of cirrhosis a few years later."

"He was an alcoholic, too?"

"I guess so," I answer, shrugging one shoulder. "Daddy was only sixteen when he lost him. The records say William was of the violent kind and prone to bursts of anger and rages. He even went to jail one time for a bar fight."

Becca had been raising her mug but her hand freezes mid-air, her eyes wide and stunned as she stares at me. "Daddy was abused like we were?"

"That's what it sounds like. There's not much on it though. But it makes sense considering how angry he was and all he put us through."

"You would think it would make him not want to hurt us since he grew up in it."

"Maybe all that happened hurt him too much and something just broke inside of him. I can't remember ever seeing him happy or smiling."

"Me neither," Becca says, thoughtfully tapping her fingers against the side of her mug. "I only have memories of him being drunk."

"I read he had an aunt here in Tennessee that he lived with for a few months but then he met mama when he came to find work on our ranch and the rest is history. You know how she felt it was her responsibility to rescue the wounded souls of the world."

Becca stares down into the dust as she nods. "I remember. I'm still not sure if that was her worst flaw or her greatest strength."

"Guess it depends on who she was trying to help."

"Not everyone wants to be saved," Becca murmurs. "Or can be."

I'm not sure I respond. My mouth has gone dry. I fiercely hope I'm not one of those who are doomed.

"So that means daddy was an orphan," Becca says, shaking her head as she puts the missing pieces together. "That would be horrible to lose both your parents like that. No wonder he never wanted to talk about it."

"It was probably too painful." The air is heavy with unanswered questions and the heartbreaking realization of the suffering our father went through. I can't imagine this was the legacy he meant to leave for us. When does the destructive cycle end? "Is it crazy that I feel sorry for him?"

"No," Becca answers sadly. "I kind of do, too. He always seemed so lost."

"Do you wonder if some people just don't stand a chance in this world?"

"Maybe. Or they don't know how to accept the chance they're offered."

"Yeah, he hated asking for help. Thought the whole world was against him. And he never wanted to owe anyone for anything."

"You're not like him, Victoria."

A shudder rumbles through me and my breath rushes out as my deepest fear is spoken out loud. Becca has always been able to read my mind. I look over at her, strangely afraid of being seen. "How do you know?" I whisper and can hear my own desperation. I want so badly to be different and good and better than the nothing he told me I was.

"You got help. You're sober. He stayed in his pain but you didn't. You're clean. You always were." Her eyes are pure and green and intent on mine as she leans towards me, our faces close just like childhood. "The abuse was never your fault. He just dumped it all on you because he didn't know how to deal with himself or his past. He was hurting and he punished you for that. But, you're not him."

I'm quiet as I let her words sink in. The logical part of my brain knows she's right. I learned this in recovery, faced him, the abuse, all the lies I believed, all the shame I carried, stripping myself down inside the raw, gritty exposure of my twelve steps. Hurting people hurt people. I can't even count how many times Andie said that to me but the simple truth of those words rings out loud and clear over the conflict in my head.

Everyone comes from somewhere that has shaped them into who they are, I realize. And in some ways even decided it. We're all recovering from something and trying to come to terms with where our choices and crossroads have led us.

My most fervent hope for this trip is to get back to the girl I always wanted to be, the girl who sang and dreamed in the impossible. I came here to find myself again. It's the last place I ever wanted to look. But, this land seems to understand me better than I do.

Sighing, I rest my chin on my hand and look out over the acres that stretch for miles in front of me. "Remember when we used to run out into the pastures and spin and spin until we'd get so dizzy we'd fall down?"

Becca smiles, but her eyes are shadowed and bruised. "We'd lay on the grass for hours and find faces and animals in the clouds. Then we'd climb Grandaddy Cade's tree and sit up there and watch the sunset."

"We couldn't come home," I say darkly. When the yelling would start, we would run for our lives out the back door, over the acres of green, to the far edges of the land where we'd be out of reach. So much open space and we'd still been trapped. "I keep expecting him to come busting out the door, swearing and shouting at us."

She touches my arm to comfort me. "He's gone, Victoria. He can't hurt us anymore."

"He's constantly hurting me." I feel as if my skin is burning from the inside out. I have years of painful memories pent up in me. "He left us with so much damage. And he never once acknowledged it or showed one ounce of remorse. I'm so angry at him for that. How do you forgive someone who was never even sorry? And we're still here dealing with everything he did. What are we supposed to do with that?"

"I don't know," she whispers, tears filling her eyes. Her gold locket gleams in the moonlight reminding me of our promises and secret pacts from long ago. "Hold on tight to each other, I guess." The air between us is tense and thick with our pain. There aren't answers for abuse and fear like this and we both know it. It's unspeakable what happened to us. Saying it out loud is the only power we have left.

You are only as sick as your secrets.

Dragging my hands through my hair, I let out a heavy breath as if trying to purge myself of the toxins and poison of my past. I realize I'm shaking and clench my hand into a fist in my lap. I don't want him to win. He's not here. I don't have to fear him anymore. I may not have any absolution, apologies, redemption, or resolution. But I do have my sister, my husband, and my daughter. It's comforting feeling Becca next to me. Even after years of separation and silence, she's still the only one who knows me better than anyone.

I need to change the subject. My throat is hot and feels as if it's closing up, choking me. I sip my tea, trying to wash down the bitterness. "It was nice to finally meet Nick. I've heard so much about him. He's a handsome guy. Quiet though and a bit hard to read."

"He's just not used to you yet. He'll come around when he's more comfortable."

"He seems to feel pretty comfortable with Lexy." I can still see the relief in his eyes that she was finally back and he didn't have to be alone anymore. It was as if everything had stopped for him when she was gone but now he could start breathing normally again. I don't know how to feel yet about seeing that kind of intensity and need towards my daughter. And Lexy is just as fascinated by him. I'm surprised the house didn't light on fire with the two of them in the same room.

Becca laughs softly. "Yeah, but it took him a while. I think he had to realize he didn't want to lose her."

I picture his scar, white and jagged over his brow, and the sorrow that seems to follow him around like a shadow. "He's been through some things."

Pressing her lips together, Becca only nods. "Haven't we all?" she murmurs.

I expect her to say more, to elaborate, but she doesn't and I can feel the warning not to ask or press. "They talked all the time while we were in California. It's nice to see her finally happy. I'm glad she had him to lean on in the middle of all that."

Becca gives me a knowing smile. "They've gotten pretty close over the last few months. She's been good for him."

"I like Ben." I can't help smiling thinking of him. He seems to have that effect on people. "He's very easy going."

"Yes, he is," Becca says and I notice her blush which somehow makes her even prettier. "He's the best guy I know."

"He takes good care of you," I say, grateful she wasn't stranded on her own after I left her to fend for herself.

"Yes, he does. I got lucky with him."

"Seems to me he's the lucky one," I tell her, and she gives me that shy, vulnerable smile only I am allowed to see. Trusting love has never come easily for the two of us. Seeing her this content and safe eases some of my guilt. We've both somehow found our way.

I quietly finish my tea. It's cooled now but I realize my mama was right. It does help a little or maybe it's just the memory of her that does. We sit side by side on the step with our arms and legs touching and look out over the land we've both inherited.

The old lab stirs again, lifts his head, his eyes fixing on me. "You have a very strange dog," I tell her, watching him yawn widely and stretch out his front paws. I'm not sure why but it makes me feel better to have him close.

Following my gaze, Becca tenderly smiles at Abraham. "He knows who needs him. Hasn't been wrong yet."

"Is that why he sat by my feet at dinner?"

Becca laughs. "Yeah, probably. He's definitely a different kind of guard dog. Loyal as they come."

The protection is comforting and I settle a little more into the surrounding dark. The air hums with insects, the croak of frogs, the soil breathing and stirring. "It really is beautiful here," I admit softly. "I just wish I didn't see him everywhere I look. It makes everything feel tainted."

"I know," she says, sighing. "There are some days I swear can hear him on the stairs, even think I smell whiskey in the house. I still have nightmares sometimes. But a lot of good has happened on this land in the last few years, a lot of healing with the horses. I want to think Ben and I have been able to change the course of the past a little bit. We took it back for ourselves. And it helps me to think that this land was never his. It's always belonged to the Montgomery family. He can't ever take that away from us." She reaches for my hand and I have a memory of us clinging under the bed to one another, vowing to never let each other go. "I'm so glad you're here. It means he wasn't able to destroy everything."

"I promised I would come back for you." I hold onto her hand. I'm not going to let the past drive us apart again. "I'm sorry it took me so long."

"I knew you would one day." She gently touches my cheek and my eyes meet hers. I suddenly feel nine years old again. Two little girls against the world.

"I really want a drink right now," I confess, because with her I know I can say anything. My entire body is clammy and aches from the craving.

She nods, her eyes full of understanding and compassion. I feel her hands grip tighter around mine as if to keep them from reaching for something I am not supposed to. "I know you do."

I can't have one. I'll never have another drink again. Sometimes it feels as if I lost the only thing that ever really knew and loved me. But Andie said it's normal to miss it. She said even she still does sometimes. As long as we don't give in.

Exhausted from the strain of trying to cope sober, I lean my head on Becca's shoulder and close my eyes. I'm suddenly so tired, down to my very soul and bones. "Thank you for never giving up on me," I whisper.

She wraps her arm around me, brushes her lips over the top of my head, and rocks me just like our mama used to do on these same steps. And for the first time since being back on this land, I feel safe enough to rest.
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