Forty-Two Minutes

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Chapter Forty-One

NICK

"Where are you sneaking off to?"

I jump at the soft sound of Becca's voice. I didn't even see her come out of the darkness. Bracing myself, I look over at her trying to read her eyes but can only make out murky shadows. "You come out here to yell at me?" I ask wearily, expecting a lecture or an avalanche of questions I'm not prepared to answer.

"I should," she says, but she surprisingly doesn't sound upset. "You made my niece cry. But, then I thought about it and realized what must've happened to you last night."

Denying it is pointless. I'm standing on the soggy ground, the soil squishing, sticking, and shifting under my boots. The proof of my own self-destruction. Water droplets slowly drip from the canopy of leaves over our heads, spattering onto the roof of my truck. The rain has stopped but the damage still lingers and waits just beyond the first rays of daylight.

"I can't talk about it yet, Becca." I hate that she's making it sound as if I'd had some sort of episode or have a screw loose. Even if I had experienced a temporary breakdown, I still don't like the label attached to me. It's humiliating to be reminded of how flawed and sick I am. My face flushes and I quickly open the truck door, hoping she'll get the hint and let me go.

"You don't have to tell me." She put her hand on my arm. "But, please explain it to Lexy. She doesn't know what you go through or what triggers come up for you sometimes. It's nothing to be ashamed of," she says when I try to pull away. "You went through something really horrible and if anyone can understand that it would be her. But she thinks you don't care. She's been hiding up in her room since last night and won't come out."

The guilt is a hot, swift punch to my gut. I hadn't slept and my scalp is caught in a steel-tight vice grip. I feel hungover even though I haven't had a sip of alcohol. The pressure behind my eyes throbs every time I blink. I keep replaying the moment Lexy said she loved me, obsessively rewinding it on repeat, uselessly wishing I could go back and do the whole thing over again so I could somehow make it right with her.

I can only remember bits and pieces of what happened last night. What I said. What she did. The shock and stress have left dents in my memory. It always happens like that. A complete and total shut down. Everything goes blank. There are black holes and fuzzy gaps where the conversation should be.

Did I really tell her I can't be with her? That we don't have a future together? That I don't want her to love me? I feel sick. None of it was what I meant to say. Any other night I swear I would have responded differently, better.

Sanely.

But I'd been out of my mind, all my thoughts short-circuiting. As if a land mine had exploded in my brain. Shrapnel is everywhere. I should have known when the first cloud appeared in the sky I was in trouble. I had a false sense of security that I shouldn't have trusted. I haven't had anything happen in months. No nightmares. No flashbacks. No triggers. I thought I was past the worst of it. I've felt almost normal again. Being with Lexy has helped calm the chaos. Unfortunately, I realized too late that I was wrong and couldn't catch up to it in time to prevent the meltdown.

I was never going to make it past her, was I?

Lexy's question pierces through my fragmented brain and I jerk as if she's right behind me. I can still see the confusion and tears in her eyes. The regret smothers me, painful and inescapable. She thinks she's not important. And it's my fault. This isn't who I want to be anymore. I don't want to keep hurting the people I care about. I hadn't meant to push Lexy away. I need her too much.

I had managed to get back to my cottage and locked myself inside. I desperately wanted to call and text her. But, I wasn't sure what to say and couldn't get my mind in the right place to form a complete sentence. Every time I tried to say sorry, lightning struck and thunder rattled the windows and my thoughts would splinter and spiral from the relentless flashbacks. I'd ended up laying on the bed in the dark while the rain beat down around me trying to block out the violent images of how I lost Megan.

But now the storm has passed and the blind haze is finally clearing and I have to face myself in the unforgiving light of day along with the consequences of the night before. Resurfacing is traumatic. The gravity of the situation and all the words I can't take back are scattered before me like the branches the wind blew across the pastures.

The second the last drop of rain fell and the sky cleared, I knew what had to be done.

"I'm going to talk to her, but I need to do something first." Resolved, I make myself look at her in the dim red glow of the dash light. "I owe it to both of them."

"Everything you want is here."

I again think of Lexy saying she loves me. My entire body fills with an aching yearning. I feel as if I've been waiting three years for her to say those words. Maybe I have. "I know," I murmur, heavily. "But, I have to do this, Becca. It's time."

It's past time for a lot of things. To grieve, to mourn, to scatter stones and ashes, to let go and begin living and loving again.

Slowly nodding, she holds out a thermos of coffee for me, a peace offering. Surprised, I hesitate before taking it from her. I wonder if she already knew this is what I was going to do. "I understand. Promise you'll tell Lexy everything when you get back."

Once I return I'm never leaving her side again. All I want is to do is fall into her arms. "I promise."

Getting into the truck, I set the thermos on the seat next to me. Becca leans in and lightly touches my cheek. Saying nothing more as if she senses I couldn't handle it, she steps back. I turn the key in the ignition and the engine tiredly catches and rumbles to life as she closes the door. The ripped black leather seat vibrates beneath me, the windshield wipers seeming to groan as they sluggishly sweep back and forth to clear away the night's rain. The Chevy is older than Moses. Still as sturdy and reliable as the sun though. I put the truck in gear and pull out down the lane.

In the rearview mirror, I see Lexy's bedroom light on as if it's calling me back. My hands tighten on the steering wheel. I fiercely want to slam on the brakes, turn around and run upstairs and hold her, tell her I'm sorry, beg her to forgive me for being so scared and screwed up and stupid.

But, I need to lay my past to rest first. It's haunted me for far too long. I don't want my damage to hurt Lexy anymore.

Passing under the arch of the gate, I turn left and drive the familiar road out to the cemetery. It's not far, less than thirty minutes away, and I get there just as dawn begins to break.

Parking my truck, I grab a blanket from the seat along with the thermos and get out. The quiet here is unlike anywhere else and surrounds me like a cloak as I walk the path to the spot where Megan is buried. I'm always struck at how peaceful it is. You wouldn't think it would be with so much tragedy and the unshed tears people have yet to cry hanging heavily in the air.

First light cracks behind the smoky mountains, casting a hazy, haunting glow over the stone graves. As the sun peaks the horizon, the golden rays spread out and warm the earth causing mist to curl and rise from the damp grass like wandering, searching spirits still not at rest. Water droplets glisten and sparkle like tiny diamonds in the trees overhead.

My eyes gaze over the graveyard. Strange how green the grass is here, I think, in the middle of all this despair and death. I'm always amazed that anything manages to grow. I look out over the rows and rows of tombstones scattered over the fields. Some have been here for well over a century, the names and dates crumbling and eroding with age or from heartbroken fingertips trying to cling to what is no longer there. So much loss. So many people left behind trying to figure out how to live with the gaping hole the person left them with.

Guilt is a shadow next to me as I stand under the shelter of the magnolia tree and stare down at the little plot of grass. I can't make myself look at Megan's gravestone as if doing so would be like looking directly into her eyes. I haven't been here in a while. Two months to be exact. Since the morning I kissed Lexy. I used to visit every day. It was the only place I could come to feel I wasn't alone in my overwhelming grief. But I've felt too ashamed to face her.

The sadness is still there, but it's different in a way I can't quite put my finger on yet. The knife isn't as sharp and jagged in my chest. The pain is more like a dull ache, tender and sweet and sentimental rather than staggering. I didn't realize until now how the wound had softened and mercifully eased. Faded slightly.

Setting the thermos and blanket on the bench, I turn and kneel down to somehow be closer to her, concentrating on carefully clearing away soggy, limp flower petals and leaves the rain had scattered around the bottom of the stone.

Finally, I lift my eyes and make myself look at the photograph engraved into the headstone. I had taken the picture myself. It was the last night I'd ever seen her alive. She'd only been eighteen. She is smiling over a cake full of candles. As if she had her whole life ahead of her. As if anything were possible back then. As if we still had more time together. She was so young and happy. Not ready to die. She looks like she should still be here. But, she isn't anymore.

Letting out a ragged breath, I get to my feet and spread the blanket over the damp marble bench, sit down in front of the grave. Leaning forward, I clasp my hands between my knees.

If Megan were still here I would tell her how sorry I am for what I've done with myself the last three years. I know I'm not who I used to be. She wouldn't have wanted me to give up. But that's exactly what I did for far too long. I was so mad at everything and everyone. Most of all, me.

I've spent all this time punishing myself for the accident, her death, my life. For surviving when she didn't. It never made any sense to me. It still doesn't, and I've never been able to come to terms with the senseless futility of that. I haven't known how to forgive myself.

Three years have gone by since she died. Has it really been that long? How is that possible? Where did all the time go? It feels like I just lost her, and if I waited long enough she'd walk through the door.

I wonder if Megan would recognize me now. I'm completely different than the person she knew. The grief and guilt have changed me, wasted me, worn me down, made me older, wearier, jaded, and bitter. My own madness worked against me, chipping away at my mind and skin and soul until I don't look anything like who she used to love.

As the hours and days and weeks bleakly bled and blurred one into the next, I had gotten to the point where I was so hardened and angry that I believed I was no longer capable of loving anyone. I didn't care anymore. There was no point. I questioned why I was even here and gave serious thought to ending it all. What would it matter? I kept my heart bricked up behind a wall of thick concrete. It was the only way I could think of to protect myself from being completely demolished by the overwhelming pain.

But then Lexy showed up with her sad, haunted eyes and wounded songs that said everything I couldn't but desperately wanted to. Her pain echoed my own. It answered it. I can still remember the strange sense of relief when I opened the front door and instantly recognized myself in her. As if she came looking for me. I know it sounds crazy but I sometimes wonder if she did. We've both been lost for so long.

Lexy kept her promise. She never once asked me about Megan. I've deliberately kept the two of them separate in my mind. It helped me feel less guilty. I wanted to tell her. There were so many times I'd almost poured out everything about that night, the accident, the chronic, constant struggle of living with so much agony and trauma. She'd have let me and she would have understood. I have no doubt in my mind about that. But even accepting her empathy and comfort would have felt like a betrayal.

By keeping Megan removed from what was happening with Lexy, I was somehow able to keep them both. I was so afraid of wanting to let go. I didn't think I had the right to. I've thought it meant I didn't love Megan enough. It felt selfish and cruel and heartless. The grief and devastation have become such a part of me over the last three years I didn't know who I would be without them. That somehow hanging onto them was a way of hanging on to her.

Opening the thermos, I pour coffee into the lid and sip it as I watch people drift in and out, wishing and waiting, mourning, heads bowed, silently praying and pleading with Heaven for signs or miracles or reprieve as they quietly cry and lay flowers at the foot of the graves of their loved ones. And they all leave empty-handed with the same helpless realization that the person they lost is never coming back and they have to figure out how to go on living with the void left behind.

Megan is never coming back. She's not here, not the girl I knew and loved. No matter how hard I try, I can't remember her voice as clearly now or how she smelled or how she felt in my arms. I guess I took for granted that those parts of her would stay permanent and vivid and within my reach. But without me barely noticing, she's become whispers in the wind. Flitting images that disappear much too quickly before I can grasp them. Like the dandelions that break off and float away over the fields in the spring.

We will never be those people again and we will never be able to recapture what we had. Our lives as we knew them are over. Forever. It's the first time I've been able to admit it.

I close my eyes and let the thin rays of sunlight soak into me. I need the warmth. I need something to prove I'm still alive and breathing as I say the words I've dreaded speaking aloud for the last three years.

"You're gone."

They hang, heavy and suspended, on the air in front of me. I keep my eyes closed and wait, wishing she could somehow prove me wrong. When I open them, the first thing I see is her grave, and I'm again forced to face the undeniable finality of her mortality. And my own. The small dash that connects the beginning and much too short end of her life. It wasn't long enough and it wasn't fair. I stare at her name engraved on the stone. Her death is there right in front of me with no escape. No way to reverse time.

I wait for the waves of devastation, bracing myself for the crippling, breathtaking sadness to crush me to the ground. But the vicious, bottomless hole doesn't feel as hopeless or paralyzing or painful. The suffocating depression is lifting. I'm finding my way back to the surface and can withstand the loss of her without being sucked under and drowning.

I can't say when the shift happened. I wasn't trying to let go. I never would have. But, somewhere in the last few months, I've stepped further away, inch by gradual inch from where we used to be. From where I last saw her alive. It happened so slowly I didn't realize how far I'd gone until I finally paused and turned around and see that Megan is nothing but a shimmering shadow in the distance. There's a chasm between us now, a wide canyon I can no longer get across as I've allowed myself to be pulled to the other side.

Now, in the quiet starkness of Megan's grave, I finally let myself accept the truth.

I'm in love with Lexy.

The realization makes my breath rush out. The air around me feels fragile and too bright as if one quick move could shatter this crystallized layer of ground I'm standing on. It's been so long since I've loved anyone else. I'm almost afraid to believe in it again. I don't want to lose it.

I don't know when I fell in love with her. Maybe it was the first time I heard her sing on the porch or watching her break through to Glory, or the morning she fell apart in my arms after finding out about her mom's overdose or staying up all night telling each other things no one else knew about us.

There are a hundred little looks, words, touches, and moments between us. I hadn't realized I'd been collecting them all, storing and saving them, holding on tight to them. Each one was so seemingly simple but they had changed me in ways I hadn't understood until now.

Lexy loves me. She believes there's something good and worthwhile underneath all my damage and demons and despair. She's seen the worst of me and still wants me. The fear and wonder of it leaves me feeling weak and breathless. I can still picture the exact moment she'd said it, how her voice had trembled as the rain threatened to tear everything apart. She'd been beautiful, vulnerable, pure and sweet, everything I could ever dream of. And I'd turned around and broken her heart. I'd pushed her away out of my own trauma and panic and fear.

I hate that she'd been afraid to tell me, not trusting what I would say or do. I feel even worse that she'd been right and that I reacted exactly as she knew I would. The instant she penetrated my deepest scars, we imploded.

But what I didn't realize until now is that she just saved me. The broken rescuing the broken. She's given me the very reason I need to let go. Her love is the life rope I've been waiting to have thrown out to me to lead me back into the land of the living.

She was right in what she said. She's here and is offering me a second chance. If I dare to take it. I'm painfully aware that I could lose her in a matter of seconds or minutes or even tomorrow. Neither of us can foresee what will happen and we can't predict the future. But, the thought of not being with her right now and never seeing her smile again, hearing her sing and laugh and say my name, frightens me more than what potential loss or tragedy might steal her from me.

I don't know how long I sit at Megan's grave. Hours pass. The thermos of coffee is long empty. The sun is up and is still slowly spinning on its axis, just as it's supposed to. The world has not ended. The sky is clear and blue as the first day of October finally makes its arrival. The air will turn crisp and cool. Soon nothing will look the same as the green of the land explodes into brilliant colors of red and orange and yellow with the coming of fall. It's my favorite season. It reminds me there's still hope in the middle of everything dying. Even the leaves seem to sense when it's time to let go. Just as I now have to.

I understood when I drove out here that this time was different. I came here differently. I wasn't coming to hold on or hopelessly wish things could go back to how they were or even to wallow in shame and self-pity.

I came to say goodbye and finally lay her to rest. I'm ready to move on, and let her be free. I want to be fully alive again. I owe it to Megan to keep going, and to myself. She wouldn't have wanted me to die with her. But that's what I did. I became a walking corpse, burying myself six feet under the suffocating weight of grief.

I'm one of the straggling few left at the cemetery. I've spent far too long in the underground of the dead. Not even Megan is here anymore. I will never forget her as long as I live but she's now just a memory. One I will carry with me wherever I go. She will always be the first girl I ever loved back when we were younger and the days were easier and we were innocent in a way I'll never be again.

It's time to leave. I need to get to Lexy. I have to tell her I love her, too. I don't want to live one more second without her.

Standing, I fold up the blanket, tuck the thermos under my arm. Kissing my fingertips, I tenderly brush them over Megan's gravestone. "I'll see you soon," I tell her because that's what we always used to say instead of goodbye.

Feeling lighter and more hopeful than I have in years, I get in my truck and drive back to the ranch towards a girl who has changed the course of all our lives simply by finding a stack of letters.
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