Forty-Two Minutes

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Chapter Thirty-Four

VICTORIA

It's Tuesday. The sun is finally up. I made it through my first night back in Tennessee.

I wasn't sure I would. The last few hours in the dark felt painfully long and endless. Fitful, feverish dreams hunted me in my sleep. But, it's morning and I'm awake and still sober.

Breakfast is over and everyone has scattered over the far ends of the land. To keep myself distracted, I wash the dishes, clean up the kitchen, sweep the floors, fold the towels from the dryer.

Chores are now done and I'm not sure what else to do with my idle, restless hands.

Lexy is doing homework. Richard is taking a nap. The time change and southern heat have drained him. I feel the craving crouching closer and don't want to give in. My phone is in my pocket, always within reach. I have Andie's number memorized.

I've come so far. 62 days clean. That's not very long considering the months and years the vodka had its grip on me, but it's more than I ever thought I'd be capable of.

I'm going stir crazy in the house. The walls are closing in, memories resurfacing, too many at once, backing me into a corner. Feeling suffocated, I blindly fumble, clumsily push open the screen, and head down the back steps, relieved to be outside.

I need to be by myself on the land. I have to prove I can handle it. I want to face him on my own, lure him out of the shadows, into the daylight where neither of us has anywhere to hide. I have to go alone and confront the ghosts that still walk and wait for me here.

Rays of golden sunlight are soft and hazy over the miles of green as I walk over the worn path in the grass. As a little girl, I used to imagine it was the yellow brick road that would lead me far away to a magical world where he couldn't find me.

I remember safer places on this ranch, ones where I had managed to smile and laugh and pretend I was normal for a few moments.

I gravitate towards the stables where Grandaddy Cade taught us how to groom and care for the horses. He'd let us sneak them treats even though Grandma Rose didn't want them to have too many for fear of getting belly aches.

I pass the outbuildings where Becca and I would play hide-and-seek. The hayloft in the barn where we'd climb up the ladder, lean out over the edge, and watch the world below.

I then wander over to my secret spot near the old forgotten well where I would play my guitar and sing and never worried about being discovered.

Standing in the middle of the field, I look around, searching for him. I listen to the whir of the cicadas, the birds chattering in the trees, the distant whinnying of horses, background echoing voices of Becca and Ben from somewhere off behind me. Sound carries far over the flatness of the acres.

I'm out in the wide-open, unprotected, no weapons or shields, vulnerable, expectant, and watching. I won't back down this time. I'm no longer a child or a coward and he can't chase me under a porch.

I wait for him to show his face and swing his shot. Bracing myself for the blow, I prepare to duck and dodge. He had a way of coming at me from out of nowhere. The blind corner of my peripheral vision that always caught the fist when I didn't turn around in time.

This land seems to have stood still while I've been gone, holding all the abuse and fear right where I left it. My last memory, my life itself, is frozen in mid-air as if the days have not moved forward, trapped in a plastic world inside a bubble. Everything has changed and yet is exactly how it's always been.

The years have passed but they have not been kind to him. He is a bitter wrinkle in time during the long history of this ranch. He taints tongues that dare speak of him. He is not remembered well and I wonder if he ever regretted the destruction he left in his wake.

I pity him for what he missed out on by letting the alcohol overtake him. He could have had a family, a future, a safe home. A better life than the tragic one he had growing up.

But he was unable to break free of his past or forgive himself for an abusive childhood that was never his fault. He didn't know how to be loved or love us. I wonder if he ever wanted to.

He refused to let us help him, his wounds and anger keeping him from admitting he needed us. The thought occurs to me that maybe he believed we wouldn't be there for him. That no one would, and letting us in would have made him feel too weak and small and defenseless. Just as he made us feel.

Targets. Punching bags. Doormats. Worthless.

Is that how he saw himself? Did he want to be that way or did he think there was no other way? Was anyone ever kind to him? Did he wish he was different? Or had he believed his own father just as I believed him? Ironic to think we both were victims.

In the quiet I hear the breeze whispering through the grasses, stirring the branches of the mossy oaks. I turn in a slow, full circle. He never comes out of hiding. Maybe for once he fears me. I remain unharmed and untouched and unscathed.

He isn't here. Only debris of his destruction are left like ancient, rusted-out relics and crumbled ruins. A desolate wasteland of his pain.

His suffering wreaked havoc over those caught in his crossfire as he flailed and failed and fought to outrun his demons. Sadly, he was never able to. And we were the ones who paid the price.

The brutal memories of his rages sear and scorch the fields, like gun powder burns on a battlefield. We are the only surviving casualties of his war with himself.

He chose to die alone, in excruciating agony, shutting out Becca and Mama even on his deathbed. I was already long gone. Did he think of me as he took his last breath?

I'll never know. He took all my answers with him. The only thing I have are faded scars on my skin and scattered, mysterious details of his terrible childhood. He left us behind to connect the elusive dots and figure out how to find ourselves in between the space and secrets he fiercely held against his whiskey-soaked chest.

Whatever it is I am looking for is nothing but dust. He no longer staggers and shouts and swears over these pastures. His bottles of Wild Turkey are long empty. His voice is silenced. His fists can no longer strike. He only exists now in nightmares and flashbacks. Even I have purged myself of him as the last drop of vodka was cleansed from my system. He has no hold on me anymore.

I thought this would be harder, sweatier, bloodier, angrier. I'd been ready for war and death and to brutally defeat him. A gladiator charging towards his enemy.

I wanted be able to take something away from him, just as he did to us. To make him pay. To be sorry. To suffer. I wanted to tell him to his face that I don't forgive him and how angry I've been. How much I've hated him. And demand to know how he could have hurt his own family the way he did.

But all I feel is heavy grief for a man who never was able to find his way out of the pit. He pulled us all down into it with him and yet somehow, despite our childhood hiding under the bed and my own desperate years of drinking, we managed to claw free, still alive and breathing.

I walk aimlessly over the land he resented and cursed, not knowing where to go or what is supposed to happen next.

Frustration churns in my belly. Tears burn my eyes, make my throat ache and tighten.

I had foolishly hoped he could give me closure, some shred of resolution, an apology, acknowledgment of what he had done to us. I've waited so long, but he's gone, and I have to look beyond him to find what I need.

I'm at the furthest perimeter of the ranch. There's nowhere left to go. I've searched everywhere and can't find him. One boundary marker over and I'll be on the neighbor's farm. I can see their cattle from here.

I remember this spot. Daddy never wanted to walk this far. And when he was drunk he couldn't. Becca and I hid out here for hours, safely out of his grasp. We were nothing but a speck in the middle of the green. Two little needles in a haystack.

Feeling defeated, I turn back and start the long walk back up to the house. It seems as if I have walked for five hundred miles and still ended up where I started.

The large old oak tree is a rippling mirage in the pastures where Becca and I used to sit in while we waited for him to pass out and we'd count the stars in the sky. We'd climb to the highest branch we could where we were far out of his reach and the moon seemed close enough to touch.

I hear singing and absently wonder who left their radio on. The voice is pure and pretty and strangely familiar. I realize it's coming from a few feet away and follow the sound.

As I round the thick, gnarled trunk and get closer, I discover it's my daughter. She doesn't see me. Her eyes are closed as she plays, lost in a bliss I instantly feel and recognize. I wonder why she's all the way out here.

I didn't know she could sing. I've never heard her, and feel a hot rush of guilt at missing out on another part of her I should have noticed and paid attention to. The blackouts have created incomplete gaps and holes where my life is supposed to be.

I hadn't realized she'd inherited the gift. It's strange it's so beautiful. I didn't think I'd passed anything onto her that was worthwhile or good. Staying quiet, I stand behind her and listen.

The song isn't one I know and I realize she must have written it herself. The lyrics are raw and honest and heartbreaking. Am I the reason her voice is so sad and lonely?

She'd found her great grandmother Rose's guitar I left on the bed up in our room. I'd started playing again and writing songs in rehab, needing something constructive to do with my empty hands. I take it everywhere with me now.

I have the surreal sense of watching myself under the same tree, under the same sky, playing the same guitar.

Seeing it in her arms brings back bittersweet memories of my grandmother teaching me how to play and singing together on the front porch. It was one of the few times I can remember feeling genuinely happy on this ranch.

Lexy finishes her song and her voice shimmers out like the glittering flutter of hummingbird wings, the final strum of the guitar echoing into the sunlight. Goosebumps shiver over my arms, make my hairs stand up. I know I just witnessed something special.

"That was beautiful."

Startled, Lexy jolts, and her eyes fly open. I notice she looks surprisingly worried as if I'd caught her with her hand in a cookie jar. My heart aches that she feels she needs to hide from me and realize it's why she's in the middle of this field. So no one can see or hear her. I used to do the same thing when I ran from daddy.

"I didn't know you were out here." Her cheeks flush as she looks down at her lap. "I'm sorry I borrowed your guitar. I should have asked but I couldn't find you."

"I needed a walk. I don't mind you playing it. Can I join you?" When she nods, I come over and sit down next to her on the grass. The guitar looks natural in her arms, her fingers at ease on the strings. She's instinctively gifted, the genius of a prodigy as if it's second nature. Without being taught, she knows what to do, how to find those secret chords and notes that make the world stop and hold its breath in astonishment at the beauty she creates, and I can tell she's been playing for a long time, years even. How had I missed this? Why has she never told me? "It was you that sang to me while I was in the hospital, wasn't it?"

Still wary, Lexy hesitantly nods. "You were having nightmares. I didn't know you could hear me."

"I could," I tell her, wincing as I remember the violent thrashing of detox. And her sweet voice washing over me in the unbearable darkness, soothing away the bad dreams and sweaty spasms of the withdrawals. "It helped."

"Good," she says, her shoulders relaxing as the tension eases slightly. She looks past me towards the house. "Where's dad?"

"Taking a nap." I give her a half-smile. "Southern heat got to him."

"It definitely takes some getting used to." Lexy reaches for her thermos, opens it and drinks. I hadn't thought to bring one. I wasn't expecting to walk out this far and realize how thirsty I am. My mouth is dry, my body drained. Noticing me watching her, Lexy holds out the water to me. "Do you want some?"

Nodding, I gratefully accept it. "Thank you," I say, taking a long, cool swallow. I guess I'm not as used to the southern heat as I thought. I don't live here anymore. It's the first time I'm realizing it. Somehow it feels as if I never left. I hand the thermos back and she sets it down between us in case I want more. Still taking care of me, I notice and wonder if it will always be a habit of hers. "I didn't know you could sing like that."

The light dims from her as she becomes guarded again and I'm saddened she still thinks she has to be so careful and cautious with me. As if I'm explosive or breakable or poison. Radioactive waste. Self-conscious, she fidgets with the guitar strap. "It's for one of my classes at school."

"You're taking music classes?"

"Yeah. It's a composition one." She shrugs, trying to be nonchalant but I know nothing about this is casual. "I was just practicing."

"Sounds like much more than that. I like the song you were playing. Did you write it?"

"Yes," she answers shyly. I can tell she's not sure how I'm going to react, what I'll say, what else I will take from her. She's deliberately kept this from me. The sick reality sits heavily on my chest that she has been right not to trust me. I would have destroyed her, just as I had everything else that was important. I'd been too drunk not to. She's lost so much because of my addictions. "I've always wanted to play grandma Rose's guitar. I remember watching you sing when I was little."

The memory feels like I'm remembering a stranger, as if the girl I used to be and who I am now were never in this same body. As if my life ended and then began again and I became someone else entirely. Maybe I did.

"They don't make them like that anymore. The strings used to be made from sheep's wool." I laugh when Lexy's eyes get bigger and she quickly lifts her hands off. "Don't worry, they were changed out years ago. The whole thing is handpainted. Even those black roses on the front. It's a collector's item these days."

Lexy reverently traces her fingertips over the glossy wood. "It's beautiful. I like the way it smells. Like dreams."

She's right, I realize, touched at how awestruck she is. What a precious way to put it. So many hopeful souls have played that exact guitar. I was one of them. And now so is she. "Yes, it does. Your grandma Rose taught me to sing on it. The first song I ever learned was on that guitar."

"What song was it?"

"She's Got You by Patsy Cline."

Lexy smiles. "I love that song. I don't know how to play it though."

"I could teach you some time if you'd like." I want to share this with her, a connection between two kindred beings. Music has a way of bonding people, even an alcoholic and her daughter.

"Yeah, that would be great."

Stretching out my legs, I lean back on my hands, look up through the canopy of branches. Even though we're sheltered under the shade, the air is still muggy and warm and smells of honeysuckle and delta-soaked soil. "This was always one of my favorite spots on the ranch."

Lexy looks up, sunlight dabbling over her face, her shoulders, the silky darkness of her hair. She seems at peace and content. I don't know how she found that here and envy her for it. She isn't haunted by this place as I am. "Mine too. It's so quiet."

"And far away from everything." I look off over the fields. The barn and main house are barely a blip against the skyline. Blink and you'll miss them. "We used to pretend we were at the edge of the world."

Lexy watches me closely, her eyes serious and intense. "You'd hide out here, wouldn't you?"

It's still such a strange relief to be able to finally tell her. "Yes," I answer because there isn't anything else I can say. I have too many scars and sins to downplay the truth.

"I'm sorry this place hurts you so much."

"I am too." I want to ease the sadness in her eyes. "But the good thing about granddaddy Cade's tree was that the branches were too high for daddy to reach us. And at night, if you look through them right up there," I point to the blue sky peeking through, "you can see the constellations and look at the stars. There are so many out here. They don't shine as bright out in California."

"No, they don't," Lexy murmurs quietly, staring off over the pastures.

Something in her voice makes me look over at her. A wistful longing. An aching. My heart sinks low into my stomach. I know what she's thinking. I could feel the land pulling her back since the second we drove under the arch of her great, great granddaddy Beaus's gate.

I'm afraid to ask, to say it out loud. I feel the question, the weight, and the consequences of her answer hanging in the air between us. She won't look at me, as if she's waiting for one of us to finally bring it all to light. But it's inevitable. Maybe this moment always has been coming since the very first letter Becca ever sent. "You want to stay here, don't you?"

Lexy gradually, tentatively meets my eyes. She looks as if she's afraid to tell me, unsure of what I will do. That I'll relapse, spiral back down, fall apart, and fall off the wagon.

Tell each other the truth. I heard it every waking second in rehab. I'm thinking of getting it tattooed on my forehead. "It's okay, Lexy. I want you to be honest with me." Even if it breaks my heart.

Still apprehensive, she finally reluctantly nods. "I do," she answers, those two words sealing our fates.

What is it about this land? Once you step foot on it you can't seem to live without it. "What about college?" I know I'm stalling, but I'm trying to get my bearings. I need a minute. Things are changing too fast. I don't want to say the wrong thing. This moment feels very important and fragile. And I have to face it sober.

"There's a music school here that I was hoping I could apply for."

My mind is spinning. I just got her back and am already losing her. "What music school?"

"The one at Vanderbilt. It's in downtown Nashville. Nick thinks I can get in."

Nick. Even the way she says his name is sweet. I wonder if she knows she's in love with him. I have a feeling he's a big part of why she wants to stay. He's not wrong. Her voice is stunning. She's even better than I was at her age.

And then it dawns on me and I stare in amazement at her. "You want to be a singer?"

"Yes," she answers breathlessly, as if she can't help it, and the fever is consuming her from the inside out. Her eyes burn with that fire I know so well. I recognize myself twenty-five years ago.

Is this my redemption? I wonder, hope stirring. Has my healing been tied to my daughter this entire time? We have the same dream, the same talent. Is there something in my blood that is still pure enough to hand down to her? Did I manage to do one thing right?

"That's what I wanted to do, too. When I left here I was going to be a star. I was convinced my name was going to be in lights."

"I know. I remember hearing you sing when I was little. I thought you had the most beautiful voice in the world."

Her compliment flusters and embarrasses me. Shaking my head, I sigh, feeling the familiar rush, the nostalgia, ecstasy. It is an addiction in itself for me. "I loved it more than anything. My entire existence used to revolve around music, as if my life depended on it. I would eat, breathe and dream it. When I was singing, everything would disappear. I could. It felt as if I was flying or made of lightning. I was free. And I could say things I couldn't say anywhere else. Singing let me be who I was supposed to be."

I'm so caught up I don't realize Lexy is staring at me as if seeing me in a new light, her eyes full of tears and glowing with that knowing only people with the same passion can understand.

"Yes," she whispers fervently. "It's exactly like that."

Bringing myself back, I see something in her face I've never seen before. For the first time in years, she isn't looking at me as an alcoholic, but as her mother. A musician, an artist, a singer like her. Someone she respects and can learn from and admires. Her equal. I've waited so long to be seen this way by her. "How would you apply for the school?"

She hesitates but I keep my eyes on her, holding her gaze, trying to draw her out and she finally gives in. "I already have an application," she admits quietly, carefully watching for my reaction. "I recorded a demo but haven't sent them in yet."

"When would you have to submit it?"

"November first is the deadline for next year's admission. My music teacher at school could write a reference letter for me."

A month from now. That's so soon. My palms are sweaty and I fight the urge to grab a bottle. It's frustrating having it constantly out of reach and trying to cope without it. The taste is at the back of my throat. "You've thought this through." She's been planning this for years. Her entire life possibly. Just like I did.

Her face falls as the guilt takes back over. "But, I won't do it if you don't want me to. I know we're dealing with a lot right now."

I look at her, at the excitement and dream in her eyes. I used to have the same flame and desire. It's unlike anything else on earth. I let daddy and the vodka bury it for years and have been lost ever since. Until now. "This is really what you want?"

Lexy stares off over the land, her eyes full of love and longing for a place I have dreaded and feared. She managed to find a home on these acres, one I never gave her. She belongs here, more than I ever did. And it is her inheritance, just as her great, great grandparents willed and wished when they settled on this ranch over a hundred and fifty years ago. She needs it the way they wanted her to, and maybe it also needs her.

"Yes."

The finality of her answer pierces through me, stilling my breath, but I know the decision is already made. I can't take her dream away. My past stole mine for far too long. I'm not doing it to my daughter. Not when she is so bright and hopeful. I understand her obsession, the yearning to pour your heart and guts into a song as if nothing else exists outside of the melody. I know better than anyone that asking her to give it up will destroy her and cause her to resent me. I couldn't bear it.

"Let me talk to your dad and see what we can figure out. In the meantime, you should send in your application."

She gasps and quickly turns to me, and I have a flash of her at two years old at Christmas, wide-eyed with wonder and staring at the pile of presents under the tree that seemed to have appeared from out of nowhere as she slept. She'd believed in everything back then. Santa and magic and castles made of snow. Before I took my first drink and taught her fairytales weren't real. "Are you sure?"

Tears are in my eyes but I make myself smile and nod. I have to give this to her. Especially with that glow on her face. Have I ever seen her truly happy before? "You want to make the deadline, right?"

My breath whooshes out as she reaches for me and I'm caught in a tight, fierce hug. My face is pressed into her hair, and I feel her arms gripping my neck. I lean in, desperately holding on, trying to get as close as I can, breathing in the flowery scent of her skin, absorbing the sweetness and innocence of her. She hasn't held me like this since she was little, as if she needs and trusts and believes me. I haven't let her or given her a reason to.

"Thank you, mom," she whispers into my ear.

Overwhelmed, I let the tears fall. This feeling is better than any drug or drink. Clinging to this moment, I make an internal vow that she will never lose anything else because of me.

She's still holding the guitar. I feel the neck jutting into my rib cage and reluctantly shift away, wipe my cheeks with the back of my hand.

Lexy lets go. She removes the strap from over her neck, hands my guitar back to me. Relieved, I take it, nestling it into my lap, the familiar weight feeling like a homecoming. It's become my security blanket. It always has been.

"Will you teach me the song Grandma Rose taught you?"

Feeling the glare of the spotlight shine and expose me, I blush and stammer a little. "I hope you don't mind if I'm a little rusty. I haven't sung it in years."

She gives me an encouraging smile and I know there's no way I will say no with her looking at me like that. "It's okay."

As I strum my fingers over the strings, the surge of euphoria floods through me, over me, into the space between us, connecting her to me. I recognize the pull, the purpose, the necessity. It's instant and I easily fall back into the world I chased and hungered for when I was younger.

I start to sing and Lexy follows the melody, her voice blending in with mine, our harmonies melding instinctively and intimately on the air with the heat as if we've always been singing together. She effortlessly picks up my cadence and rhythm and adds her own spin to the classic song and I'm again left staggered at how gorgeous her voice is. I've never been more proud of her.

As we sit and sing under my favorite old oak, I have the beautiful realization my life has finally come full circle and I rediscover the girl I used to be. I'm somehow still here underneath the layers of yellowed, tarnished history. And I'm alive for the first time since I left him, and myself, far behind.

A sense of completion fills me and I feel whole in a way I never thought was possible on this land as I pass down to my daughter the song her Grandmother Rose taught to me all those years ago.
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