Forty-Two Minutes

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Chapter Thirty-Eight

VICTORIA

As my family walks towards the main house, I hang back near the training pen, watching the clouds of dust evaporate and settle over the ground where my daughter had ridden Glory moments before. Tracks mark and gouge the earth where they set the world on fire.

I can't seem to move from this spot. I'm still breathless and overwhelmed over what I witnessed.

Lexy and Nick are linked close as they head to the stables to wash down Glory before the rains come. They somehow seem as if they have always been together. Do they understand how alike they are? How their scars meet and match at their exact breaking points? Their pain and tragedy is like a scarlet velvet ribbon twining around their wrists, binding them to one another. A bittersweet ache fills me. I can feel the intensity of their need for each other even from a distance.

Richard begins to follow after Becca and Ben, joining in their laughter, instinctively reaching for my hand, his fingers grasping the empty space where he expects me to be. Realizing I'm not next to him, he stops and turns around, a question in his eyes. I'm curious if he feels the void of a missing limb just as I do when he's not nearby. Does he know how necessary he is for my survival? How desperately I crave his presence?

When he comes up next to me, I can't help wondering if he is protecting me or if it's the other way around. We are incomplete and lost without each other. We always have been. He must sense I don't feel like talking yet because he stays quiet as we stand side by side looking out over the land.

The beauty here is undeniable despite the heartbreak and bitterness that has stained the landscape. Time seems to slow down. There is no traffic, no rush, no crowds. Just open space and sunlight and sky around us. It's one of those rare instances where everything that needs to be said simply waits and holds until we're ready for it. I find myself wishing the rest of my life were as simple.

"Are you doing alright?" he finally asks.

Before I can answer, Lexy's laughter drifts over to us. It occurs to me that I have heard her laugh more in the last few days than I have in her entire life. I turn towards the sound, instantly recognizing it. I feel the yearning, that primal maternal love for our daughter. I would fight ferocious animals for her. She's over at the grooming area with Nick washing down Glory, the three of them celebrating in their own little circle.

"Did you see her today?" I ask, and I can hear the wonder and awe in my voice. "I've never seen her so happy."

Clearly as staggered as me, Richard lets out his breath as he nods. "She was incredible. I'm still blown away by what she did."

"I am, too," I murmur, shaking my head in disbelief. "I can't believe that was our daughter out there." I again think of her racing around the pen on Glory's back, her smile brilliant, her eyes bright and alive and glowing, her heart beautiful and free. A warm rush of pride washes over me and I swallow back tears.

"This ranch has been good for her," Richard says, echoing what I'm silently thinking.

"Yes, it has." Even with so much of the past weeping over the fields, Lexy had somehow managed to find a whole new life here. A dream and passion and purpose. Love. She'd discovered the beauty buried beneath the ashes. "I thought there was nothing left in this place but violence and pain."

Richard looks at me. "What do you think about it now?"

I take a minute to process his question. I was dreading coming back here, certain it would be my undoing and the pressure would cause me to unravel into an unrecognizable, sobbing heap on the scarred plank floor.

But I've withstood the onslaught of flashbacks from my childhood. Each blow that has come swinging towards me hasn't knocked me down. I'm still here and I'm still standing. Daddy has not defeated me. And I survived this trip empty-handed, without one swallow of vodka. Temptation waited and lurked and tried to derail me, but I didn't give in. I consider it a huge victory.

I again stare at the sacred ground where my daughter and Glory had defied gravity and shattered through the sky. Each one of us had come away different from the euphoria of that experience. "When we got here, I had this idea that I was going to be able to take back everything daddy took from me. I was ready for a showdown and was finally going to tell him to his face what he did to us and make him admit it and apologize. I wanted to hear him say he was wrong. But he's not here." I scan the horizon, futilely waiting for a return that never comes. "I don't know why I thought he would be."

"Because he used to be. And he was when you left."

Thoughtfully, I slowly nod. Time moved on while I was locked away in a cold, dark room with nothing but my past and a bottle. People became ghosts. Bruises and scars faded. I look up, out, forward, away from where I last saw daddy's face and fists.

"But, what Becca said is true. He didn't destroy everything. There are still good things to be found on this ranch. There's still hope here. And it will be different for Lexy. She won't know the fear we did. She won't have to. He won't be able to harm her now. This place was never a home for me, but it gets to be one for her."

"How are you feeling about her staying?"

My thoughts are churning too fast and I unsteadily pull my hand through my hair. A frantic mania starts to build within me whenever I scrape against the subject of my father. Fight or flight kicks in. "It's hard because of everything that happened to us, but I know how important this land is to her. I can't take it away from her. That would mean I'm still letting daddy control our lives and I don't want to live under that kind of fear anymore. She's already lost too much because of me."

"What does Andie say about it?"

I can't help smiling at the mention of my sponsor. Andie has become so much more over the last few months. She has such a settling effect on me. I probably say her name more times in a day than I say my own. Her friendship and support are crucial to me. I don't know what I would do without her. I even miss my meetings back home with the comfort and reassurance of her at my side. "That she's proud of me. She said it's a huge step."

"She's right. It is. I'm proud of you, too. Are you? You should be."

Flustered and feeling exposed, I let out my breath. It's strangely an embarrassing question to answer, almost as if I still think I need to ask permission to believe I did something right. I never thought I'd be able to say I'm proud of myself for anything. God knows I haven't done much to be proud of.

But I'm clean and sober now. I'm facing my demons. And over the last few days, I have felt something shifting, changing, opening, a deep exhale of places inside me I thought were too damaged to be restored. I'm not the same person I was when I stepped foot under Grandaddy Beau's arch a few days ago. It's been a long time since I've wanted to be alive. Perhaps it's time I stopped believing daddy's lies and learn to love myself.

"I want to be." Sighing, I lean my arms on the rail, look out over the sun-kissed fields. "If you had told me a few months ago that I would be standing here and agreeing to let my daughter live in that house, I would have said you were crazy and laughed in your face. I never thought in a million years I would come back or be able to face any of it."

"But you are."

"I know. It's still a shock to me. But, Andie reminded me that Lexy would have left for college eventually anyway so she would have moved out regardless. I know how important the music school is to her, but I just didn't think all of this would happen so soon. I feel like I just got her back."

"She still needs us."

"But she also needs this." I gesture out over the pastures that are as much a part of me as my own skin. My eyes fall on Nick at the exact moment he leans in to kiss Lexy. The sweetness and purity of it melt my heart. "And she's in love."

Richard follows my gaze. "That's pretty obvious." His brow creases as he studies Nick. "Do you think he will be good for her?"

"He'll give her the moon," I murmur, thinking of Nick taking her out to grandaddy Cade's field to watch it rise simply because she wanted to see it. I wonder what he's going to do once he realizes he's in love with my daughter. Something tells me it's going to be harder for him to let himself fall. His wounds are still very raw. I hope the landing won't be a crash.

Richard gives me a confused look. "What?"

I laugh softly, shake my head. "Nothing." I watch Lexy smile adoringly up at Nick. I would swear I can hear her heart beating even from clear across the pastures. I somehow always could, no matter how far apart we were. "I think they are exactly what the other one needs. And I want her to be happy. Even if I have to let her go."

"She'll always be our daughter."

"But she's not a little girl anymore. We're starting over but not from the same place. I can't get all that time back."

He rubs my back to comfort me. "We're not losing her. And we will be back to visit."

"Becca asked about having Christmas here." A small laugh involuntarily escapes my lips at what a normal thing that is to do. Could that be possible? "I never thought I'd have anything to celebrate on this land."

"It would mean a lot to Lexy if we came."

"I'm sure it would," I answer weakly. Family. Who would have thought we would become one in the middle of all this wreckage. We've all somehow found our way back to one another, despite the odds and decades of destruction caused by abuse and addiction. "I wonder if it will ever get easier to be here."

"I don't know," Richard replies. "Hopefully. It'll just take some time. And we don't have to decide right now," he reassures me and I feel some of the tension ease out of my chest.

"We have to go back to real life soon," I warn him. "It's just going to be the two of us when we fly home on Monday."

He turns to face me, his blue eyes penetrating and suddenly serious. "Why do you say it like it's a bad thing?"

"It's just all going be different."

"It needs to be," he says firmly, and I think he's saying it to remind himself as much as me. We've both made far too many mistakes with each other.

He's right. No more blackouts, slammed doors, days of excruciating silence, sickening hangovers. Only him and I trying to figure out how to live together again with me sober for the first time in almost twenty years. One day at a time. Awake and aware to every minute and feeling and thought and craving. At least we will have the support of Andie and the AA meetings and our counseling sessions to help guide us.

"Yes, it does." Feeling a bit overwhelmed by the daunting task of facing the days ahead, I reach out to touch him, tenderly move his hair back off his forehead. The waves are thick and soft and sift silkily through my fingers. There's no one I'd rather go through this with. "Thank you for saving my life," I say softly, the words carrying on the sunlight over to him.

We've never talked about it. We addressed the overdose in family counseling, talked about the where and why, and how of what happened. But we were in a supervised group setting with everyone around and rules to follow. Never alone. Not face to face. This is different. This is personal. This is only about us and that horrible night.

He flinches and I feel him freeze. His eyes turn dark and tormented and he shakes his head, takes a step away from me. That familiar scorching guilt begins insidiously oozing its way back between us. I don't want it to separate us and desperately grab the sleeve of his shirt before he can slip away from me. I couldn't bear it if I lost him again.

"I didn't," he stammers, his words jumbled and tumbling over themselves. A flush rises up his neck and I can feel him starting to spiral as the memory and fear get much too close. "I should have done more. I should have tried harder to get you help. I couldn't -"

I touch my fingers to his lips, stilling him, his words instantly fading into thin air with all our other regrets. "It wouldn't have mattered what you did," I tell him, trying to offer an atonement from the suffocating condemnation he's carried on his soul. "I didn't want to be saved. I didn't want to come out. I couldn't have faced it. I wouldn't have let you even if you had tried. I would have gone right back to drinking. Even more than before because I would have hated you for trying to make me stop. I wasn't ready then."

He searches my eyes and I make myself stand and stay present and be fully seen. It's harder than I thought. I'm still learning how to be me. "But you are now?"

I helplessly shrug. "I don't know if anyone is ever really ready," I say, truthfully. "Rock bottom can always go deeper. And there's always this idea that one more time will finally make the pain stop. But, I want to live if that's what you are asking me. And I finally feel like I have something to live for. There's so much I would have missed out on and I'm grateful you saved me and that I'm still here. I never want to be without you. Or Lexy."

"I wouldn't have survived it," he says so fiercely, the force of his words steals my breath.

"I'm so sorry," I manage to whisper. I don't know what else to say. How do you make up for something so unspeakable?

He stares at me and I'm reminded of our younger days where there was nothing but our feverish need for one another. It was wild and fiery and so necessary we could barely go a few hours without feeling each other's skin. "I am too. For so many things."

I step towards him and close the distance. I hate there being any space or barrier between us. We've had years of being apart, even if it was only a few doors down the hall. I look directly into his eyes, holding them. I need him to listen and believe me. "I love you."

I watch as he softens, melts, gives into me. The lines ease from his face, his shoulders loosen. He takes a full deep breath, perhaps the first one he has in years, and wraps his arms tight around me. "I love you, too. More than anything."

Leaning into him, I look over the acres of land and open fields. I can see why my daughter loves it. There is still a raw, resilient beauty that the abuse, fear, and addiction hadn't been able to touch or destroy. And the history, legacy, and traditions are everywhere in the old outbuildings, the victorian farmhouse, and the unwavering commitment to staying true to the family that had settled here over a hundred and fifty years before. It's time to let her go so she can find her place here.

"We should head back up to the house," I say against his chest. Even after decades away, I still recognize the earthy dampness seeping up from underneath the soil, feel the electric shift in the atmosphere. The hairs on my arms stand up. Lightning is going to strike soon. "The rains are coming."

Richard looks up at the cloudless sky. Sunlight shines warm and golden over his face. The wind hasn't even begun to kick up yet. "How in the world do you all know that?"

I glance at him from under my lashes. "City boys," I tease, smiling and shaking my head.

He laughs, the sound open and uninhibited and free and I find myself laughing too. It feels so good to finally let it go, to let it out, to share it with him.

He leans in and softly kisses the small scar above my lip where daddy had shoved me down the stairs when I was eleven for accidentally leaving the light on in the kitchen. So much pain to try and heal. These are the secret pieces of me that he now stands guard over, and I have finally found the courage to let him touch. It's such a comfort to be safely protected and known. "Let's not go anywhere without each other again," he says, linking our hands together.

"Deal," I promise. I scan the skyline again. The humidity feels heavier, thicker, charged. I can taste the moisture in the back of my throat. My ears are trained to hear the rumble of thunder long before it arrives. "We really do need to get inside."

He squints into the distance, still seeing no sign of a storm. "If you say so."

We're laughing as I wrap my arm around his waist and we walk up the worn path together towards the old farmhouse that no longer seems as haunted now that Lexy has made it into a home.
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