Forty-Two Minutes

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Chapter Forty


Wrapped in a blanket, I sit curled up in the window seat, staring dully out into the darkness. Dawn will break soon. In the soft, golden light from the small Tiffany bedside lamp, I can see the silhouette of my reflection in the aged glass. My face looks odd and warped and rippled. I don't recognize myself. The pale girl looking back at me is nothing but a ghost.

It's eerily quiet and hushed. The birds have not yet come out of hiding from where they took shelter during the storm. I wonder if they are just as worried about what this day holds as I am.

I hadn't slept. The rains had stopped sometime during the night. The air drifting in is fresh and clean and smells of musty old timber and soaked earth.

The clouds have cleared away from the sky. The wind has stilled. Everything is back to normal and deceptively calm. As if nothing happened yesterday. As if I hadn't gotten my heart shattered. All that is left are the debris and aftermath of our conversation and my heart scattered for miles over the dirt.

Checking my phone, I notice the white numbers read 5:42. I had waited for him to say something, to come find me, hoping for a call or text, desperately praying he would want to risk trying for me, but he hadn't. I had almost run back out into the rain to find him but was afraid he would push me away again.

The night had been much too long and I had cried harder with each hour that dragged by, his silence painfully reminding me that I may have just ruined any chance we have of being together. Who would have thought that loving him would be how I lose him?

Forever doesn't exist. Happy ever after isn't real.

His words had kept me up restlessly tossing and turning. I feel like they have branded my skin. Bitter tears burn my throat. I thought I'd cried everything out into my pillow but my hurt is so deep and raw. I feel like he'd somehow broken me. I rub my hands over my bleary eyes. They are grainy and sore and swollen from sobbing.

He'd been different yesterday; silent, brooding, slowly withdrawing, angry and edgy and panicked like a wild, caged animal. His movements and words had been sharp and rough, not tender and sweet like the night we watched the moon. He kept pushing at me, accusing me of lying to him and not caring. I didn't understand it. He seemed out of his mind somehow, like he was someone else entirely. I hadn't expected the sudden, abrupt shift in him. It threw me so completely off guard that I finally caved and said the one thing he fears most.

I knew it was a mistake. Even as I heard the sound of my own voice, felt my lips form the words, and helplessly watched the moment slip irreversibly away from me, I knew.

I keep coming up against Megan. We've never talked about her. And the horrible fallout from last night is why. Did I somehow know this is what it would do to us? That once one of us dared say her name everything would break apart? What if we can't recover from the wreckage?

I understand that he still wrestles against the guilt over how he lost her. I would never tell him he had to forget or be so cruel to think he should just get over it. I know better than anyone how deeply and permanently damage can scar you.

He wasn't wrong that I have been hiding my feelings. I knew he wasn't ready. Maybe he never would be. I know he cares about me, and what a huge step that is for him, but risking saying he loves me is a whole other level entirely. It's so big and overwhelming and triggers every fear he has.

He's the first person I've ever said those words to. I've never been in love before. I hadn't realized the truth would create such a beautiful, devastating disaster.

All I want is to be a part of his life, too, and for him to let me into the place that continues to haunt and hurt and hold him where he is. I want him to trust me enough to share his pain with me. He has all of mine. There is not one secret he doesn't hold. Even the most fragile part of my heart is now in his hands.

I know how hard it is for him to allow people to get close to him. He's terrified to let anything change. And now I'm afraid he never will.

I don't know which is worse. Him not loving me or him being in love with me, but not letting himself give into his feelings. Both are horribly tragic and lonely. It's somehow too much and not enough at the same time.

Doesn't he understand how rare it is what we have? Does he think this happens every day? The miracle of two wounded people like us finding each other and being able to fit our splintered pieces together and having them match so perfectly and completely. We've both been given a second chance. Is he really going to throw it all away?

I glance down at my phone again, anxiously willing something to come through from him. Still nothing. No message. No text. No call. No Nick. I want to weep.

I look over when I hear a quiet knock on my door. My heart leaps, hoping foolishly that it's him. "Who is it?"

My mom's voice echoes through the old wood. "It's me, Lexy. Can I come in?" I smother my disappointment. When I say yes, she opens the door, steps inside. "I brought you up some coffee." Carrying two mugs, she walks over to me, hands me one. I offer her a feeble smile of thanks. I doubt it convinces her that I'm fine but I don't have the strength to try and give more. She carefully studies me, concern in her eyes. "I saw your light on. You were pretty upset when you came back to the house last night. I just wanted to check on you."

I hold the coffee but don't drink it. The heat against my palms is comforting. I don't know how to begin explaining how I feel and wearily go back to staring out the window.

When I say nothing she glances back at the door. "Would you like to be alone?"

Feeling lost and vulnerable, I desperately grasp for her hand, and she instantly takes it, almost as if she's relieved I need her. "No," I say, sounding like a frightened child. "Will you please stay with me for a bit?"

"Of course, sweetheart." As she sits down next to me, I notice her trying not to look at the closet where she and Becca cowered and hid or under the bed where they huddled and clung close. I can't imagine how traumatic it is for her to be in this room. She seems tense and jumpy as her eyes dart around searching for somewhere safe. The haunted memories lay waiting for her in the faded wallpaper, scarred floorboards, Grandmother Rose's quilt, every shadowed corner. She was so brave to come back to this land and face her past. I am incredibly proud of her.

"The rain has stopped," she finally says, deciding on small talk and I'm grateful. It's easier for now. Maybe for her as well.

I can still hear the sound of it beating on the roof as Nick told me he may never let himself love me. "Yeah," I manage, hoarsely. I sip the coffee before the tears rush back up. It's warm and helps soothe the lump knotted in my throat. "You're up early."

My mom shrugs and glances out the window. "It's so quiet out here. I'm still not used to it. Too much space to think." Giving me a knowing look, she sips her coffee. "Did you get any sleep last night?"

Wincing, I can only shake my head. I can feel her waiting for me to say more, but if I mention his name it will swallow and drown me. I again glance down at my phone in my lap that stays excruciatingly blank and silent. "Are you and dad still going back to California tomorrow?"

She nods. "Yes. Why?"

"I was thinking I might go back with you."

"Really?" Her brows come up in surprise. "What changed your mind?"

I give her a bruised look. "You don't want me to come with you?" I know I'm probably overreacting, but everything is hitting me wrong. Even my skin feels sensitive.

"No, that's not it at all," she stammers, trying to keep up. "We would love to have you with us. I just thought you were really happy out here."

Dragging my hand through my hair, I stare back out the window towards the dusty road that leads far away from last night, from Nick, from the words I can't take back. "With everything that has happened I thought it would be good to be closer to you and dad in case you need me."

She leans forward, her eyes full of sorrow and regret. "Lexy, you don't have to take care of us anymore. I've made you responsible for things a daughter should never have to deal with and I'm so sorry for that. I don't want you to put your life on hold for me. If you want to stay, your dad and I will support you. Becca and Ben are here. I know how much you love being with the horses. You want to sing and there is a great opportunity to do that with the music school. Nick is here." She slips it in gently, carefully, but I still flinch.

I can't look at her. I'm too afraid I'll break down. I wrap the blanket tighter around me, some small, thin shield of protection from all this devastation. The thought of not being on this land with the horses, close to my aunt and uncle, not seeing Nick every day is gut-wrenching. I can't imagine living anywhere else. But then I picture the dark look in his eyes when he said he doesn't believe in love anymore and I don't know how I could stay. He seems to hurt me simply by breathing. "I just think it would be better if I left."

"Honey, what happened yesterday? Did you and Nick have a fight?"

A laugh escapes my lips and even to me it sounds a bit hysterical. A fight. More like a sudden, unexpected explosion of dynamite thrown in between us. I hopelessly look at her across the destruction and rubble. "Something like that," I murmur dully.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

I helplessly shrug. "I don't even know what to say. I'm still not sure what went wrong. Everything was fine but I noticed he got really quiet after our ride. He started pulling away. I was worried about him and went to go talk to him. I found him in the storehouse, but he was acting really strange. I've never seen him like that before."

My mom frowns. "What do you mean? Strange how?"

I stare towards the direction of the outbuildings as if I can somehow find answers. But I can't see anything clearly yet. It's still too dark. "He just was off. He wasn't acting like himself. He kept saying I was hiding things from him and lying about how I felt for him. He was really upset and accused me of not wanting to be with him. I didn't know how to get him to believe me and ended up saying I loved him." My heart is so tired and feels like it's beating so slowly. I wonder if I would even notice if it stopped completely.

Her expression turns sentimental, tender, almost as if she already knew this was coming. "What did he say?"

My breath hiccups as the shock slams into me again. "That fairytales aren't real and that love doesn't last," I whisper bleakly. People die, Lexy! I can still picture him, wild-eyed, sweating, his body shaking. Wincing at the harsh memory, I swallow hard. "He told me we don't have a future together. I thought he loved me, but he doesn't."

"I don't think him not loving you is the problem, sweetheart," she says softly, and I slowly lift my gaze to hers, desperate for a small shred of hope. Noticing the blanket has slipped off my shoulder, she tucks it tighter around me in a way that is maternal and reassuring. She used to do that when I was a little girl. Before the bottle took her from me. "Maybe he will come around."

"I don't think he will. He doesn't want to let me in." I brush at my tears with the edge of the blanket, but they are falling too fast now as my words pour out. "Everything has been going so well. I thought we were finally going to be happy together. I don't understand what happened and he won't talk to me about it. I think I just messed everything up and I have no idea how to fix it. What if I've lost him for good?" I can barely see her through the blur of tears spilling down my cheeks.

"Oh honey, I think you just surprised him is all. Or he could have been dealing with something you don't know anything about. People say a lot of things they don't mean when they are scared and don't know what to do. But, I don't think for one second that you're not important to him."

"That's the whole problem though," I insist, my voice choked by sobs. "The more important I am, the more scared he gets."

"Just give him a minute to figure it out," she soothes, gently moving my hair back off my damp face, her fingers gently threading through the strands. Her touch stirs a long-forgotten memory of her playing with my hair when I was sick to help me fall asleep. I have an overwhelming urge to lay my head in her lap. "Maybe you could just let it sit for a bit. Things might look different when the sun comes up. They usually do. You can take my word on that." Cupping my cheek, she brushes at my tears with her thumb. "We can talk more about it later once you both have had some time to think it over. And if you still decide you want to come back to California then we'll all be on a plane tomorrow."

"Okay," I murmur, sniffling, still not convinced it will change anything. Liking having her close, I reach out for her, hold tight to her hand. It's warm and soft in mine. I would recognize her touch blindfolded, even in a room full of people. She is completely aware, lucid, sober. Here. I never thought I would have a moment like this with her. "Thank you, mom."

She smiles and I can't help but think how pretty she is, even in Becca's pale pink robe and her hair tumbling messily around her shoulders from sleep. Her face is softer, her eyes no longer vacant and dead and tormented. Being out in the southern sun has brought color to her skin. She looks more at peace. She looks like her again. It seems at least some of her demons have been laid to rest.

She gets to her feet. "I'm going to go start breakfast if you feel like joining us in a little while." I think I nod but I'm not sure. I feel dazed and numb. My head is throbbing and stuffy from crying. She takes my empty coffee mug from me. I didn't even know I'd drank it. "I'll bring this down for you. I think Ben made a fresh pot if you want more."

"Has Nick come in yet?"

She shook her head. "I haven't seen him since yesterday."

He's disappeared again, I realize. Because of me. Hiding out, running as far as he can. My whole body caves in. I think I understand what people mean now when they say they are lovesick. It's a horrible form of suffering from the agony of wanting someone you can't have. I'm nauseous, jittery, hopeless. How will I be able to stand seeing Nick, knowing he won't let us be together? I'm relieved it's still dark so I still have some time before I have to face him in the harsh light of day.

She walks across the room, turns to look back at me from the doorway. "I don't think he wants you to go if that makes any difference." It would change everything and we both knew it. She leaves me with that last thought as she quietly closes the door.

I desperately want what she said to be true, but even if it was, would Nick be able to let go of his fear of the past repeating itself to come towards me? I just need one reason, something, anything from him and I will stay at his side until I take my last breath.

The kickstart and rumble of Nick's old beat up Chevy truck pierce the air, the sound startlingly loud in the stillness. Jumping slightly, I lean over and look out the window in time to see his headlights cut through the dark as he drives away down the dirt lane towards the main road. I wonder where he's going this early. He hardly ever leaves the ranch. But then my heart sinks as I realize he's made his choice.

He's going to Megan's grave.

I don't even notice I've started trembling. My tears well up again and I bury my head in my arms, trying to shut the whole world out. I have a horrible feeling my decision just got made for me.
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