I need to talk to Lexy. I barely slept. That's not unusual for me, but the look I saw in her eyes last night kept me up tossing and turning. I wonder what she'd been about to say.
She didn't mention anything more about it but there was that one split second between us that has my mind racing and my stomach churning. Something is coming, changing, whispering just on the edges of where I can't quite see.
Her name already on my lips, I come in through the back door and then freeze to a halt when I see Victoria standing at the stove, muttering to herself.
We're alone. The kitchen is quiet and dim in the early morning light. Brows raised, she looks over as the screen closes at my back, trapping me in with her.
I stand where I am, not sure what to do. We haven't had an actual conversation since they arrived. Just polite small talk here and there. Short sentences and one word answers that I quickly excuse myself from. And there's always been the protection and distraction of others around. Honestly, I've deliberately avoided one with her. She makes me nervous. She seems to know things I haven't told her.
The silence is uncomfortable between us and much too loud.
"She's not down yet," she says, as she whisks batter in a bowl. "She was up late." Still stirring, she gives me a pointed look and I instantly am five years old and in trouble for playing in the mud. "Didn't hear her sneaking in until a little after midnight."
Feeling scolded, I shove my hands into my jeans pockets wishing I could shrink into the wall. I can't look at her. "She wanted to see the harvest moon," I mumble, and then hearing how stupid I sound, roll my eyes at what a fool I am.
Maybe I'm imagining it but I think I notice her expression soften and her lips twitch and wonder if she's laughing at me. It's the kind of look a guy gets when it's clear he's got it bad for a girl.
"You take her out to granddaddy Cade's field?" she asks as she pours batter onto the griddle. "That's the best place to see it."
"Yes ma'am." I still can't quite meet her eyes.
"Good." She nods in approval. "And call me Victoria. You're making me feel old." She brushes her hair off her forehead with the back of her hand, leaving a trail of flour on her skin. I'm not sure if I should tell her. She's wearing the faded blue gingham apron I've often seen Becca wear. I know it belonged to their mama and is spattered with spices and stains from long ago.
Thinking she wants to be by herself, I motion back over my shoulder towards the door. "I can come back if I'm in your way." Aiming for a quick escape, I start to slink off when she stops me.
"You're not in my way. I was actually hoping for a chance to talk to you," she says. My hand on the screen, I grimace and silently curse my luck. But either she doesn't notice or doesn't care. I think she already knows she has the upper hand in the situation. Bacon is sizzling and the smell is making my mouth water. "There's fresh coffee if you'd like some."
Glancing helplessly one last time at the back door, I realize I have no way out and inwardly sigh, resigning myself to the third degree I'm sure I'll be dragged through.
Relieved for something to do, I busy myself with pouring coffee into my mug, taking longer than I should trying to delay the inevitable. But, I can feel her patiently waiting me out as if she already knows what I'm thinking.
The quiet stretches, hums, thickens, only the constant static and pop of the griddle filling the space between us.
Knowing I can't put her off any longer, I turn to face her and finally ask, "What did you want to talk to me about?" I instinctively brace my shoulders, expecting the questions of what a guy like me wants with a girl like Lexy. I already know I'm not good enough for her. I'm too messed up and damaged. Is that what this conversation is going to be about? Is she going to tell me to stay away from her?
A heavy hopelessness falls over me. I guess it was only a matter of time. My stomach knots up and I look down at the scarred plank floor, anticipating the worst. I'm used to being alone but thought I'd no longer need to be with Lexy here.
"I'm not sure if this will mean anything coming from me, but I wanted to thank you for taking care of Lexy when I couldn't. She told me you were there when she got the call about...um...what happened..."
She trails off, cheeks flushing, swallows hard. Quietly and very carefully she plucks the strips of bacon off the griddle, putting them on a cloth, one by one by one. Her movements seem a little shaky and robotic as if she's fighting to stay in control. I wonder for a tense, panicked second if she's going to cry.
She doesn't finish her sentence. Maybe she can't. As if the overdose is still too tragic and traumatic and terrible. The awareness and intensity of it fill the room making it a bit hard to breathe. My eyes slowly lift from the floor back up to her. She suddenly seems fragile, and I notice guilt and shame flicker over her face and feel a rush of pity for her. Becca often looks the same way when the painful memories start crowding in.
It occurs to me I've had this backward and this whole time she's needed my approval and acceptance. Forgiveness for her failings. Is she worried about what I think of her? Is she expecting my judgment and condemnation? Is she waiting for accusations?
A bit stunned, I notice my mouth is open and quickly close it. "You're welcome," I stammer, still not sure what else to say and hoping I don't come off as condescending. I wasn't expecting to have a conversation like this so early in the morning. And no one is coming in to rescue me yet.
A little more composed, she clears her throat. "I know you two have gotten close."
Uncertain where she's going with all this, I warily nod, trying not to give away too much. I'm still blown away that Lexy wants anything to do with me.
Opening up a drawer, she pulls out a spatula. "Everything is exactly where I left it," she murmurs, shaking her head as she looks down at the utensils. I'm pretty sure she's talking to herself. "You can find a spool of thread in the same spot from a hundred years ago."
"That's actually happened." I've found all sorts of old and odd treasures buried and tucked away in forgotten, dusty places.
She lets out a humorless laugh. "I'm not surprised." She flips over the pancakes. "You must be happy she's staying."
Does she blame me for taking her daughter away? Apprehensive, I sip my coffee, needing a barrier between us as I try and guess what she's getting at. "I am," I answer cautiously.
"I'm sure you heard she's applying for the music school."
"Yeah, she told me last night. She's too good not to."
Victoria pauses then and looks over at me. "Yes, she is." Her smile glimmers back, and I notice how in awe she seems. I don't think Lexy has to worry her mama isn't proud of her. "She said you've been really supportive. You think she'll get in?"
"I know she will," I say with absolute certainty. I'd bet my life on it.
"I have a feeling you're right about that." I notice a twinge of sadness, of longing in her voice as she moves over to the cupboard and pulls out a stack of plates, turns and holds them out to me. "Will you please help me set the table?"
"Uh...sure." Grateful for a reason to avoid her gaze, I set my coffee cup on the counter and take the plates from her. Moving around the table, I put them in the usual places, making sure to keep Lexy's spot next to mine.
"Can you do me another favor?"
I think we both know I'm not in any position to tell her no. Without answering, I look at her across the length of the kitchen, expectant and waiting.
She waves the spatula over the pancakes. "I haven't made these in years and am not sure if they're any good. Do you mind taste testing them for me?"
The vulnerability is back in her eyes and I again find myself feeling sorry for her. She just wants to get something right. I remember Lexy looking at me the same way. I finish arranging the silverware. "Okay."
Relieved, she reaches out her hand. "Give me your plate."
I do what she asks and watch as she prepares two pancakes and a few strips of bacon. My stomach is already growling. She gives it back, along with the mug I had set aside, and I take both from her. As I sit down I wonder what I'm supposed to do if I don't like it. I don't want to hurt her feelings. She'll never let me be with Lexy then.
Turning away she gets herself a cup of coffee. While her back is to me, I taste a bite, and the light, fluffy buttery pancake melts in my mouth. They are better than Becca's although I'd never dare say it. I don't have to lie or pretend as I'm immediately flung back to my childhood on rainy Saturday mornings when my brother Jake and I stayed in our pajamas the whole day and made a fort underneath the dining room table. A sentimental nostalgia fills me for simpler days when I knew nothing of loss and death.
My senses are so overloaded I don't even mind when she sits across from me.
Holding her mug between her palms, she quietly studies me, searching, probing for something I'm not sure I have a choice in giving her. In the pink morning glow her eyes seem greener and eerily wiser than they should and she has a way of penetrating underneath the surface of things. Like mother like daughter, I think wryly. I see where Lexy gets it from. They both are way too perceptive. It's unnerving.
"You're really important to her," she says but it sounds more like a question.
I had just put a bite of pancake in my mouth. Buying myself some time, I chew slowly, swallow. But I know I have to answer her eventually. "She's important to me too," I awkwardly manage.
"She's been through a lot."
I hear the warning in her tone and it's then I realize what she wants to know. If I'm going to hurt her daughter. If I will protect her, be there for her. If I care enough to do those things.
I want to promise that I won't ever break Lexy's heart but all the declarations feel forced, and much too small and ridiculous and juvenile, as if I'm trying to prove myself. And I'd be lying. I probably will hurt her. Not on purpose, not intentionally. But I'm still so new at this and haven't let someone get close in years. I'm not sure what I'm doing yet and am feeling it out as I go. How do I explain that I'm just now finding the courage to try and live again?
The thought crosses my mind that she might understand all I'm not telling her. She seems like someone who wants the straight truth more than me simply saying empty words that mean nothing.
"I think you want me to tell you what my intentions are, but honestly, I don't have any big plans. I don't really make those anymore. I know that's probably not what you want to hear. It's just how it is though. But if you're asking if she matters to me, she does. More than anyone has in a really long time." Still a bit overwhelmed by it, I let myself look at her and lay it out plain. "I just want to be with her, but that's all I know for right now."
She's quiet as she watches me, thoughtfully tapping her fingers against her mug. I can't tell what she's thinking and realize I'm waiting for her to grant me permission to start over. "Taking it one day at a time?" she finally asks.
"Isn't that all any of us can do?"
Seeming startled by the idea, she blinks and stares at me as if the revelation is just now occurring to her. "Yeah, I guess it is." Her gaze lifts to my scar, holds for what feels like the longest, most excruciating minute I've ever sat through, searing through my skin and past and walls. She doesn't look away and I go still, feel my body tense, my insides burn hot. There's nothing I can do, nowhere I can go. I'm stuck and too exposed with no way to hide my deepest secrets. I wear the proof on the outside for the whole world to see. "I'm sorry for whatever it is you lost," she says so softly she almost whispers it as if she knows how raw the grief is.
My breath shudders out. I don't usually acknowledge it with other people. Megan is still off-limits. But for some reason I let myself stay in this space with her. She has a way of bringing your pain out. I think it's because she's still trying to find a resolution for her own. "Thanks," I manage and can hear how unsteady and strained my voice sounds as if I got the wind knocked out of my lungs when she bumped against the unhealed scab. "You too."
We look at each other across the table. I notice I don't feel defensive or guarded or angry around her. As if we are two survivors clinging to the same life raft, trying to find dry land in the middle of the wreckage we've been drowning in. An innate silent understanding passes between us and I wonder if the broken always call out to the broken. We all somehow find each other.
After a few moments, she sighs as if deciding something. I finally let myself breathe when she does and have the sense I just passed some sort of test. "You'll keep an eye on her?"
I very much understand the responsibility and trust she's handing over to me. "I will."
"Okay then." Eyes a little misty, Victoria nods as if the matter is settled. She rests her chin on her hand. "How are the pancakes? You cleaned your plate."
I look down and realize every last bite is gone. I didn't even notice I'd eaten it all. They tasted like she was trying to find her way back home, but I don't know how to begin explaining what I mean by that and am too embarrassed to try. "They're just right. I liked the bacon. It was sweet."
"A sprinkle of brown sugar. It's a little trick our mama taught us."
"Ben will love it."
She surprises me by laughing and I'm relieved to hear the sound as some of the shadows ease away from her. "He seems to like to eat."
I smile. Ben's appetite is legendary. "Yeah, he does."
As if she knew we've been talking about her, Lexy walks in. The second she sees me her face lights up and she smiles as if I'm the only one in the room and I feel my heart stutter and my thoughts scramble. She's already dressed and I know she's holding me to my promise to ride Glory. She's so excited I wouldn't be surprised if she slept in her clothes.
Trying to figure out what is going on, she glances curiously back and forth at her mom and me sitting together at the table. "Good morning," she says with a hint of surprise in her voice.
"Your mama made pancakes," I explain. "They're really good."
Lexy looks at her mom and I feel the instant connection and pull as if Victoria is a magnet she helplessly gravitates towards. "You made breakfast?"
"I sure did." Pushing her chair back, Victoria smiles, gets to her feet. "Staying a good kind of busy."
Lexy stands close to her as if protecting her and I wonder if she's aware of how she tracks Victoria's every move. I'm not sure if that habit will ever break. "Do you need any help?"
Victoria walks to the stove and hands Lexy the plate of bacon to put on the table. "Can you finish putting everything out before everyone comes in?"
Nodding, Lexy takes the plate and turns back towards me, setting it in the middle. When she leans close I catch her scent. She smells how she always does; sweet and light and summery, and my gut tightens. "Save my seat," she says softly.
"I already did," I tell her, motioning to the empty chair next to me and then see the look from the night before come back into her eyes when she smiles.
Caught off guard, I forget everything else, wanting to ask her what she's thinking but then she seems to realize she's giving too much away and her expression clouds over with uncertainty and doubt, shutting me out of where we just were.
Confused, I open my mouth to say something, but her mom is calling her name and she's moving away before I can find the right words, leaving me alone to sit and stew over what she's keeping from me.
Becca comes in from downstairs. "Wow. It's a feast in here." Walking to the stove, she puts her arm around Victoria's shoulders. "Thanks for letting me sleep in. I haven't been able to in years."
"I'm glad I could. I needed something to do. We still eat at seven sharp?" Victoria asks her.
"House rules," Becca answers and they share a moment that is sweet and a little sad and intimate all at the same time. I'm still struck at how strong and necessary their bond is even after decades apart.
We all look over when Ben comes in from outside, the screen banging behind him. Becca is always nagging at him to not let it slam so loud but he has too much energy to help it. "I could smell breakfast cooking all the way out in the pastures." He sets his hat on the hook near the door. "Is that bacon?" Without waiting for an answer, he eagerly snags a piece from the plate, bites, the crisp and crunch satisfying. "This is delicious," he says with his mouth full.
Victoria glances at me, winks, and I see why Lexy feels so protective of her. I understand how much she needs this. Some kind of normalcy in a place where there has been nothing but pain and fear and chaos. Maybe that's what we're all looking for here.
Ben gets a cup of coffee and brings it over, sits down, and starts talking to me about needing to get the stables and barn ready for the cooling weather. Only half-listening, I tune him out when Richard walks in. The kitchen is full of people and suddenly loud with laughter and chatter overlapping, colliding, circling around me.
Walking towards his wife, Richard kisses Victoria, smiling as he brushes away the flour she streaked over her skin and she blushes. "Good morning," he says.
She murmurs something I can't hear, their faces only inches apart. Lexy told me how they used to never be in the same room together and wouldn't talk for days. Now they can't seem to be separated for more than a few minutes.
Looking somehow younger and lighter than she did a few moments before, Victoria hands him a mug of coffee, and taking it, he joins us at the table, sitting directly across from me.
Both parents in one day, I think, trying desperately to fade into the background. I'm on a roll.
As Richard stirs in sugar and creamer, I notice he doesn't have one scar or callous on his hands. Even first thing in the morning he looks like should be on one of those glossy magazines covers. He still seems a bit out of place on the ranch. I can't imagine him mucking out stalls, but I bet he would if his daughter asked him to. They've gotten much closer over the last few months. "I hear you're going to help Lexy ride Glory today."
I guess it's too late to hope he didn't see me. Shifting uncomfortably in my seat, I remind myself not to slouch. He's taller than me even sitting down, making me feel at a disadvantage. "Yeah. We're going out after breakfast."
"She's a big horse from what I've seen."
"She's a champion thoroughbred. Raced on the circuit for years."
"Think Lexy can handle her?"
I firmly nod. "I know she can. She's got a way with them. Glory will follow her anywhere."
"I'll have to take your word for it. I haven't spent a lot of time around horses." He sips his coffee, watching me as he lowers his mug. "I just don't want her to get hurt."
I'm not sure why but I think I hear a double meaning behind his words. I have a sneaking suspicion he's also talking about me. "I'll be sure and stay close."
As if knowing I need to be saved, Ben interrupts and starts talking about some movie he and Becca watched, pulling Richard's attention away from me. I'm grateful for the distraction so I don't have to try and make any further conversation with him.
The sound of Lexy laughing makes me glance past Richard's shoulder over at her. Surrounded by her mom and her aunt, she looks beautiful and happier than I've ever seen her.
As I watch her, I have a flash of us sixty years from now in this kitchen, on this land, sitting on the porch swing, smiling and kissing her as we drink our coffee and eat buttermilk pancakes.
Realizing where my thoughts are going, sweat breaks out on the back of my neck and I feel the blood drain out of my head. The noise fades away. I'm dizzy and have to brace my boots on the floor for balance as I sway slightly.
"What's wrong?" Ben asks me, his eyes concerned. "You look like you just saw a ghost."
Maybe I have, I think, dazed. The ghost of the life I almost had but then lost in a matter of seconds. I believed in happy-ever-after once. A long, long time ago. But then it all was ripped away from me.
Cruelly. Violently. Permanently.
And I've never been able to get it back. My ears are ringing. What if I lose Lexy too?
Richard is frowning at me. I don't blame him. I must look crazy. Shaking my head, I try and pull myself out of the gritty grip of that horrible night. My palms are damp and sticky and I clumsily set my mug down before I drop it.
"Nothing," I murmur, again looking across the room for Lexy. Finding her, I stare hard making sure she's still here.
Absolutely nothing is wrong. Everything is perfect. Not one problem or sign of danger in sight.
I'm not sure why it scares me so much.