Forty-Two Minutes

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Chapter Thirty-Nine

NICK

Just as Ben had said, the rain came through, one of those late summer storms no one could explain. White lightning flashed, bursting brilliantly through the gray, foreboding sky. Thunder boomed low making the ground tremble beneath my feet.

I hate the rain. It reminds me of that night, the crash, Megan. It's been three years, but the smell of soaked earth takes me straight back to that same bend in the road as if I'm still stranded there.

I can hear the song on the radio, her screaming my name right before we hit, see my mangled truck wrapped around the tree, feel the devastating shock as my whole world was destroyed in the blink of an eye.

The way the lightning streaks across the land reminds me too much of the flashing lights from the ambulance that took her lifeless body away.

As the clouds roll in and the sky grows darker, so has my mood. I've become frustrated, irritable, short-tempered. I've slowly withdrawn, folding into myself until I'm silent and unreachable. I can't concentrate or seem to hold a simple conversation. Words and thoughts have become jumbled and disjointed.

Life has been too good the last few months. I'm actually happy. I've laughed. I have hope for the first time in years. I'm feeling again. The days aren't as heavy with Lexy here.

But, I know all too well how quickly and easily I can lose what matters most. The rain seems to like reminding me that everything can be ripped away and how helpless I am to stop it from happening again.

An unexplainable sense of something not being quite right is nagging at me. The uneasiness is like an annoying tag on the collar of my shirt, scratching at the back of my neck, rubbing and chafing and scraping up my skin.

Lexy is hiding something from me. I can feel it. She'll be smiling right at me and then a strange distance creeps in between us. It's slight, invisible to anyone else, but I know it's there.

I keep thinking about the look in her eyes from the other night. I saw it again this morning after she had ridden Glory. She had been bursting with excitement and almost said something. I felt it humming on the air between us before she closed herself off.

Is she having doubts? Did she change her mind? I wouldn't blame her. I'm a mess and not a sure bet by any stretch of the imagination. I've got too much baggage. Maybe she decided she doesn't want to deal with it all and is going to cut me loose.

Not knowing is gnawing at me, and keeps me from trusting that anything good is coming. I can't shake the panic in the pit of my belly. There's more to it, I know there is. I'm on the edge of it, I can feel the tug and push of it. I just can't see through her enough yet to know what the more is.

I walk into the storehouse, relieved to get out of the rain. I need a break from the grating noise and chatter that fills the main house. There are too many people and the weather is stirring up too much of the past and it's better for everyone if I'm alone.

I had quietly slipped out. I have to do something, anything to make the flashbacks of the accident stop. I'm not sure how long until Lexy notices I'm gone. She's still on cloud nine from her ride earlier and is celebrating with her family.

She'd been amazing out in the ring. Her technique and skill had been instinctive and natural. I barely taught her a thing and she somehow knew what to do, as if she'd been handling champion thoroughbreds all her life. She'd definitely inherited her Grandaddy Cade's gift and intuition with them. I'd been left staggered as I watched her and Glory racing like a whirlwind around the pen. She'd looked beautiful, alive. Free. She has so much potential and possibility waiting for her. The whole world is open to her. She can do and be anything she wants. Her victory reminds me that I'm dead weight and will just drag her down.

I didn't tell her where I was going. I can't be around her right now. It's not safe for me to be especially with the mood I'm in. Plenty of places to hide though. It's a big ranch. And she won't expect me to be out here which gives me a little more time to clear my head.

The rain didn't ease away the heat. Instead, it trapped it in, making everything even more muggy and humid. It wasn't a hard storm, but it has a power over me all the same. It's coming down in slow steady sheets. I know I'm probably crazy but it feels like the skies are mocking and tormenting me as they leave large, scattered drops over the ground, my shirt, face, hair. There was a pressure in the air, an electric surge that makes my system feel edgy and charged. I'm on high alert like prey being hunted.

The wet makes the scents of grains and hay and feed stronger. I can taste them on my tongue, inside my nose and feel a small amount of relief at the familiarity. The light is dim and blurry through the doorway and I purposefully turn my back on the rain and the painful memories it stirs up as if they are rising from the grave.

Trying to lose myself in what I know, I channel my frustration into heaving bags of feed onto the shelves. The sweat and exertion help distract me from the constant, incessant patter of rain on the roof. Each drop feels like needles prickling over my body. I swear it's going to drive me mad.

I'm towards the back when Lexy walks in. Every muscle in my body instantly tenses. I don't even have to turn around to know she's behind me.

"There you are," she says, and her voice sounds like musical notes in the static of rainfall. "I've been looking everywhere for you."

"Well, you found me." If she notices the hostility in my tone she doesn't give any sign of it. She must have walked from the house. Her hair and skin are wet from the rain, so are her clothes. Her cheeks are flushed, her eyes bright. She's still smiling. I don't think she's stopped all day. It just makes my resentment towards her burn darker.

"What are you doing out here?"

"Had to get the supplies stocked that just came in before the rain soaked them," I tell her, wiping my damp hair off my forehead with the back of my arm.

She starts to step closer but then stops with a jolt as I shove a bag with more force than necessary onto the shelf. "Do you need any help?" Her eyes aren't as sweet and sure now. They are wary and watchful, cautious. I don't think she can read me which is a first. I have the sick gratification that she finally knows how it feels.

"No," I answer too quickly, and even I can hear how harsh my voice sounds.

She frowns as she watches me, that same uncertainty I've been feeling for days crossing over her face. "What's wrong?"

"Why don't you tell me?"

"What do you mean?"

"Forget it," I mutter, and bend to pick up another bag. Why does the rain seem as if it's getting louder? I can barely hear anything over it.

Even with my back to her, I can feel her staring, her eyes burning through my clothes, straight into me. I wonder if she will finally realize she doesn't like what she's found. She walks towards me, reaches out to touch my arm. "Nick, what's going on?" I try to turn away but she steps between my body and the shelf, trapping her in against the wall, forcing me to have to face her.

"I just don't feel like talking." Lightning flashes, making my vision waver and double and I blink to clear away the haze. Her face looks distorted and fragmented. My breathing is heavy and jagged as if I've run a marathon although I'm standing still. I wonder if I'm having a panic attack. I used to get them all the time the first few months after the accident. I would completely freeze and shut down. The walls would collapse and close in. Just like they are now.

"You're shaking," she whispers, her eyes alarmed and worried. She tightens her arms around my waist as if she knows I need her to hold me up. I hate that I don't trust my own strength. "You're scaring me."

She's about to demolish me and I'm scaring her? What a joke. But, nothing about this is funny. "I'm fine."

"You don't seem like it." She touches my face, her expression growing more concerned when she notices my skin is clammy. "Let's go back to the house." She tries to take my hand to lead me out.

Into the rain.

My stomach clenches and I quickly pull my hand free. "I don't want to go back inside."

In the dim, shadowed light her eyes are beautifully green as she studies at me. I don't know why it makes me angrier. "Nick, please talk to me."

"I could say the same thing to you. You're keeping something from me, Lexy. I can feel it. What aren't you telling me?"

Instantly apprehensive, she shakes her head, avoiding my gaze. She takes the smallest step back, so small she thinks I won't notice, but I do. I catch everything she does. I have since she first showed up a few months ago. I can't seem to help it.

"I'm not hiding anything."

"Yeah right." I let out a disbelieving laugh. "If you don't want to be with me you should just tell me." I try to pull free of her but she holds on tighter.

"I do want to," she insists, her voice rising, as she clings desperately to my arm. I can barely make out what she's saying over the relentless downpour. "You're all I want."

"Whatever," I mutter, stepping even further away from her. I hate the void that comes rushing in between us. I'm suddenly so cold. My chest is tight. And the rain won't stop falling. Pitter-patter. Drip. Pitter-patter. Drip. Pitter-patter. Drip. I want to scream and shout like a wild animal at the black sky. "You're lying to me about something."

"I swear I'm not. I..." she catches herself again, almost on the verge of something, the words hanging on the air in front of us, and I see her hesitation, her doubt, her mistrust. About her feelings for me.

"There it is, Lexy." I point my finger in her face, startling her, and see her eyes widen with surprise. "You what? Finish the rest of it." I want her to have the guts to rip my heart out so I can finally face the reality that this whole thing was doomed from the very start.

"I love you," she blurts out, her voice trembling.

That's not what I expected her to say. I was prepared for a crash but she instead did a one-eighty on me. I freeze as I watch her mouth form the words, almost as if it's happening in slow motion. They fall over me, the redemption and salvation of them, the terror of what they mean, what they will ask of me. The temperature in the room seems to drop ten degrees. I feel dizzy and disoriented from the abrupt shift in the atmosphere.

Her love is everything I had feared and tried to outrun. But now, face-to-face with her, I realize I've been waiting for her to say it. I hadn't known how badly I needed her to love me, to know someone like her could.

We stare at each other as the thunder rumbles and the rain beats on the roof. I desperately want to lean back into her and let her wrap me close and make all this pain go away. I know she could do it. I wouldn't even have to ask her. She'd know exactly what I need. She somehow always does. But I can't let her. She shouldn't believe in me like this. She's wrong about me. I don't have anything good left in me. Sooner or later she'd realize it. It's better that she see it now. Before I end up ruining her life. Like I did to Megan. Like I do to everyone around me. I force myself to step back from her. She's instantly aware, straightens.

She reaches for me, everything she feels burning in her eyes. "Nick-"

I shake my head, back up out of her reach. "Don't." My mind is reeling from fear, from shock, from yearning. If she touches me I'll crumble. "I shouldn't have let it get this far."

She flinches as if I slapped her. "What?"

"I just don't want you to get your hopes up."

"Why can't I?" she asks weakly.

"I'm not...we shouldn't..." I trail off when lightning flashes and I hate that it makes me jump. I feel the urge to duck for cover but there's nowhere to hide.

"Nick, please don't do this to us."

"Us," I repeat numbly, unsure if the word is a curse or a cure. This is what has been building up the last few days. The inevitable talk about where this was going, what we were, what we could be. The pressure is unbearable. I need her to understand we may not have a future. How do I tell her I no longer believe in tomorrow? "That's what I'm talking about. You think there can be an us. But you're wrong. Forever doesn't exist. You want a fairytale and there isn't one. Happy ever after isn't real."

She's pale. Her eyes have filled with tears. My stomach drops when I see the disappointment in her face as if she'd already had in her mind this is what I would do once she told me. I hate even more that she hadn't been wrong. "Yes, it is."

I back up. I can feel myself about to burst. She should get away from me before the damage hits. "No, it isn't."

"Why not?"

"Because people die, Lexy!" I shout, my voice echoing through the small storehouse as years and years of frustration and loss and grief erupt and spew like hot lava over the plank floor, scorching any middle ground we were standing on. "Nothing lasts. I had everything I ever wanted and I lost it. What if I lose you, too?"

She goes quiet, still. Thunder booms low and loud, rattling clear through to my bones, making my ears ring. She waits for it to pass as if she knows I can't cope when it's chasing me. "I'm here, Nick," she says softly. "I'm alive. I'm not going anywhere."

I shake my head. "You can't promise stuff like that. You don't know what could happen."

"But neither do you. Please don't throw this away. I won't leave you."

The wind has picked up, blowing through the doorway, swirling around us, making the warped wood lean and whine and creak. My brain is foggy, unclear. "It's not that easy, Lexy."

"So, what are you saying? That you're just never going to let yourself love me?"

"I don't know. I'm not sure if I can." I hear myself talking, but the voice doesn't sound like mine. I seem to have no control over what is coming out of my mouth. But my words crush her all the same.

I see her shrink into herself, withering right in front of my eyes. I did that to her. I hurt her. I made her cry. And, I know I'm capable of so much worse. "I was never going to make it past her, was I?"

Triggered, my whole body jerks and shudders. She said it so quietly, so gently but it still makes my breath whoosh out. We've never talked about Megan. We haven't dared. And this exact moment is why. This is the reason she hasn't wanted to tell me how she felt. We must have both known it would shatter us. "I...I don't know what to say."

Shaking her head, she wraps her arms around herself. "No, I get it," she says wearily as if she's already given up. I don't know why the fear of that is more intense than the rest. "There was always going to be a line with you. And I can't cross it. You're not going to let us have this."

I almost tell her how much I need her, that I can't live without her, that she's the reason I breathe. I desperately want to rewind time and somehow find a way to take it all back, but I can't seem to move or say anything. The rain keeps falling and falling and falling and she is asking me to believe in love again and my past is wedging its way in between us, driving us further apart, and all I can do is stand there with my mouth open and no sound coming out.

I'd done it, I think dully. All her walls were torn down. I wasn't alone anymore. I had what I wanted, but for what? I'm still just as lost. I wonder if I'll ever figure out how to win this war I'm waging against myself. The shame is a chokehold around my throat.

When I still say nothing, Lexy sighs and I can see her heartbreak and defeat like bruises on her skin. She's just a wispy shadow against the gray sky beyond the doorway, as if she's dissolving right in front of me. I have the terrifying thought that she is. "You're wrong. We would have been really happy. Who knows what it's like to lose everything more than us?" Her voice cracks as she turns towards the door.

Panic strikes with the lightning, flashing over us. "Lexy wait. I -"

"I don't want you to touch me," she says, stopping me in my tracks. Tears falling down her face, she hopelessly walks away. She's almost to the door when she turns back. "You're so afraid of losing me, but what you don't realize is that you already are." Without waiting for an answer she walks out into the rain. I watch the curtain of it swallow her, just like it had done to Megan. Terror grips me and I start to go after her but then a gust of wind blows through and I'm left paralyzed and blinded by the scattering drops pelting me in the face.

Cursing loudly, I turn away and pick up a bag of feed, angrily hurl it against the wall, causing it to rupture and scatter violently all over the ground. Thunder booms, vibrating over the earth until it reaches my feet as if it's searching for me. As if it knows I can never outrun it.

"I hate the rain," I mutter through gritted teeth and then bend down to start cleaning up the mess I made.
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