My plane lands in Nashville a little after six in the morning and I get a cab to my aunt's house. I give the driver the return address on Becca's letter. He enters it into his GPS and we drive out of the airport.
It's still early and there isn't much traffic on a Saturday morning. The radio is playing on low and I recognize Reba McIntyre's voice drifting out singing about Fancy not letting her down. I make small talk with the driver who tells me his name is Joe. He's been married fourteen years, has two kids. Their photo is taped to his sun visor. As I look at their smiling faces, I can't help wondering if there really is such a thing as a happy, normal family. Does everyone have dark secrets they don't talk about? Is everyone pretending?
He has the front windows down and I notice the breeze is already warm and smells of the mud and sediment from the Cumberland River that winds and flows through Nashville.
The sights and sounds should be beautiful, but I can't get my anxious mind to stop racing. I didn't sleep much on the plane and feel dazed and edgy and wired. I still can't believe I'm here, that I actually went through with leaving. I haven't been able to stop worrying about my mom for one single second.
My phone is on silent in my purse. I'm too afraid to look at it. I'm not sure if I'm more worried that she's called or if she hasn't. Fear and guilt hang heavily around me as we cross over the Gateway Bridge and drive into the heart of downtown.
Nashville is known as the Country Music Capital of the World and I can see why. Billboards with the latest country stars are plastered on every corner, on the side of buses and park benches. It's the birthplace of the blues and rock and roll. Singing legends Johnny Cash and Elvis lived and recorded their music here.
As we drive down Broadway, I look up at steel skyscrapers glistening in the early morning light. They tower over the faded brick buildings, charming cafes and colorful shops that line the waterfront. There aren't a lot of people out; a few joggers, a couple walking their dog.
Since it's my first time here, Joe takes me the long way around and points out landmarks such as the famous Ryman Auditorium, The Country Music Hall of Fame, the Grand Union Station Hotel and the replica of the Parthenon in Centennial Park.
Excitement fills me as we follow the signs for Music Row and Joe drives down the middle of a musical wonderland. I lean forward in the seat so I can see better. The entire street is lined with brightly colored buildings and neon signs for famous honky tonk bars and clubs such as Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, The Bluebird Cafe, Second Fiddle and Tomkats. I feel like I'm in a completely different world, one I've always secretly dreamt of being a part of.
With it being so early, the neon signs are dark, the streets quiet and deserted. I would love to see what it looks like at night with the music blaring and voices spilling out, the lights lit up and flashing, while people dance and laugh.
Singing has been my escape and salvation since before I could talk. Knowing that music is always there even when nothing and no one else is, has been the one thing that has gotten me through the darkness and devastation. It's been the only thing I can really count on, the only place where I really know who I am. I don't talk about it and have never told anyone. No one has ever heard me sing; it's too personal, it's mine, and is the only part of me she hasn't been able to take away. Being able to channel all my fears, pain, and guilt into a song helped me survive and gave me a safe place to disappear. Singing is the only way I can speak in a world where I've had no voice. It's the only truth I have.
Once we get further from downtown, the buildings become fewer and farther in between until they all but disappear in the rear view mirror. The land flattens out into miles and miles of lush, green farmland. I roll down my window so I can smell the air coming through. Barns, silos, and stables begin to pop up along the backroads. Peach orchards drift fragrantly past the landscape. A scarecrow stands in the middle of a cornfield, the stalks so high they tower clear over my head. On the other side of the road, I notice wheat bales neatly rolled and stacked as they are prepared for harvest. The golden fields are starkly beautiful against the wide blue sky above.
A glittering flash catches my eye and I see a blackbird swoop down and perch on top of a fence post, its wings glossy black in the sunlight. Its beady eyes seem to pierce and follow me as we pass. An eerie feeling comes over me. I hope it's not a sign or an omen. I've heard they are bad luck. I watch the bird get smaller and smaller in the side mirror of the passenger side. I swear it's still watching me. Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. Spooked, I make myself breathe. I'm psyching myself out. Stress and exhaustion are making me delirious. Shaking off the uneasy feeling, I look straight ahead and focus again on the green spread out in front of me.
We suddenly brake as man on a tractor pulls out in front of us and begins driving leisurely down the middle of the road, unconcerned with speed or traffic or being in anyone's way. Joe doesn't seem to mind either and simply waves and moves around him and the man tips his hat, as if it's the most normal thing in the world.
Life is definitely different and much slower out here, I think, as I look out the window at horses and cattle lazily grazing in wide open pastures. Sprinklers sprint far and wide over the fields, stirring up the scents of soaked earth and freshly cut grass. Somewhere in the distance I hear a train going by.
Even the air feels clearer, more pure somehow, unpolluted by lies and hurt and the stench of addiction.
"Here we are," Joe says as he pulls up in front of the ranch gates.
My nerves are jumping as I lean over to look out the window at the thick timber posts standing strong and proud on either side of the dirt road. Arched high above is a sign and I notice that branded deep into the wood are the words "Montgomery Ranch, Established 1871". Something stirs in me, some pull I have never felt before and don't understand.
I thought I'd have more time to prepare myself but Joe is waiting and the meter is running and I have to get out of the car. He's already getting my suitcase and guitar from the trunk. I haven't brought much. I wasn't sure how long I'd be staying or if my aunt would even let me past her front porch.
"Enjoy your stay in Nashville," Joe says as he gets back in the cab. I watch as he does a U-Turn and drives back down the road into town, and wonder if it was a mistake to let him leave me here. Good thing I kept his card, just in case. Shading my eyes, I look to my left and then back to my right. The road is long and there's not one car coming in either direction. I suddenly feel very alone and stranded.
Turning around, I look back up at the tall gates, again feeling that strange longing for connection and belonging. They have to be hand made, I think, running my fingers over the rough, grainy wood that has turned crimson with time. The heat has already made it warm. I wonder who built it. I don't know anything about my family who settled on this land.
My brows come up in surprise when I notice an old cowboy boot perched up on one of the posts. Strange. I don't know why someone would hang it there. A large rusted wagon wheel rests up against the side of the gate. Gathering my courage, I pass underneath the arch and start the long walk up towards the house.
The dirt lane stretches out like a carpet in front of me, flanked on either side by mossy, ancient oaks. Beyond the trees I can see endless miles of green pasture and horses grazing or simply standing under the early morning light. White picket fences follow and barrier in the land and I wonder how many acres are here. Glancing to my left, I see glimpses of scattered outbuildings, a large red barn and stables on the far side of the ranch.
The air seems to shimmer from the heat, making the road ahead look like a mirage that will disappear under my next step. Even so early, the morning is already warm and sticky. Welcome to summer in Tennessee, I think, pulling at my shirt which is now damp and clinging to my skin. I wish I'd thought to change into shorts and sandals instead of the jeans and sneakers I'd worn on the plane.
The land is so quiet and hushed and still. All I can hear is my shoes crunching over the dirt lane, the hum and swarm of insects, the song and call of the birds in the trees overhead. Thick, gnarled trees, the kind you only see in the deep, deep south, create a canopy of mossy, dripping vines that brush against my hair and shoulders as I pass under them. Sunlight filters through the branches, patterns shifting and dancing along the dusty ground. The light seems different out here, lazy and soft and dreamy.
And then the trees open up, and the house is suddenly in front of me.
My breath catches and I stop and stare up at a three story white victorian farmhouse with a wrap around porch and lace curtains drawn back in an upstairs window. The roof is steep and high and pitched. Sunlight glints off the glass from the bay window on the first floor. The paint is warped and peeling from the years and weather and age, making it seem even more sentimental and cozy. Honeysuckle vines twirl up the posts around the porch and weave through the trellis and I smile a little as the light, sweet scent drifts over to me. The house is simple and pretty and somehow feels as if it's been waiting for me.
This home is where my mom was born, where she grew up, and where she ran from. It doesn't look anything like how she described it, I think, confused. What did it used to be like? The house I'm looking at now isn't run down and ugly. There is nothing frightening or threatening lurking in the shadows. Where are all the ghosts and monsters she told me haunted this land? What was she so terrified of? Who hurt her here?
Desperately, my eyes scan over the land, looking for any small sign that she might have left behind. Which room was her bedroom? Did she run and play in the pastures? Did she swing on the old tire swing still hanging from a branch of the large oak out front? The house is beautiful, like something straight out of a Hallmark movie. I can't figure out why she would want to leave so badly. What had happened to her that has made her never want to come back and lie about the people who stayed behind?
It's too hot to keep standing still and I walk the rest of the way up the drive. I don't know if my every step is getting me closer to the truth or more pain. I wonder if my aunt and uncle are awake and try to see movement through the front windows as I come up the porch steps. Doubt creeps in. What if coming here was a mistake? What if Becca has gotten tired of waiting and decided she no longer wants to know us? What if all our years of silence have hurt her too much and she sends me away? Where would I go? I can't go back home.
My stomach is in knots as I set down my suitcase and guitar. Blowing out a nervous breath, I bang the brass knocker.
As I wait, I look around and notice an old golden lab sprawled out in the shade under the porch swing. I smile as the dog barely stirs and lazily wags its tail at me, too hot to do anything else. I feel the same way and use my hand to fan myself from the thick, sweltering heat.
I hear the heavy thud of footsteps and the face that peeks out at me through the aged glass is distorted and rippled and then comes into clear view as the front door opens.
The man on the other side of it doesn't look much older than me, but somehow feels older than he should. He has dark hair and brown eyes that look much too weary and sad for someone so young. As if looking out at the world is painful for him. A white, jagged scar is above his right eyebrow. Curiosity has my eyes flickering to it before I quickly look away.
He's not my uncle. I don't recognize him from the pictures Becca had sent. Was he the one who helped out around here? My aunt had mentioned him in the letters. Mike? Nick? I can't remember his name. I can barely remember mine at the moment. He seems to know who I am though. He does a double take and his eyebrows come up in surprise and recognition as he looks at me. I think he's shocked to see me because he just stands and stares for a minute. I don't know what to say and again wonder if I should never have come.
"She's waited a long time for you." His voice is deep and southern and I wonder if I hear an edge of anger underneath it. Is he accusing me or do I just fear everyone is? Before I can ask him what he means, I hear a woman's voice come from behind him.
"Who's at the door, Nick?" She pushes it open wider, and I'm suddenly face to face with my mom's sister.
She recognizes me immediately and I watch as her eyes widen, hear her gasp. She instinctively raises her hands to her mouth in shock. "Lexy?" My name is a whispered question as if she's trying to believe I'm really in front of her. I notice how close Nick stays to her side, as if he's protecting her from me.
I try to soak in as much of her as I can. She has the same green eyes as my mom. Her hair is curly and dark like ours. She has hers pulled back off her face which is clean of makeup. She's wearing a red and blue plaid button up shirt, faded jeans and boots. Small hoop earrings are in her ears and a gold locket is around her neck. The half of a heart looks familiar but, at the moment, I can't place it.
I take all these things in, desperate for a connection, and feel my throat tighten and close up. I thought I'd know what to say; I'd rehearsed it in my mind the whole way here, but all that comes out is, "I just found your letters." I awkwardly hold up the pink envelope I'd been carrying. It was now crinkled from being read over and over. "I didn't know where else to go."
Tears are in her eyes as she nods and steps towards me. "Oh honey, you came to exactly the right place." She doesn't even hesitate as she pulls me into her arms. Exhausted and relieved, I let myself be pulled close, grateful to finally be somewhere safe. She smells like strawberry shampoo and lavender lotion and I breathe her in, committing every detail to memory. "Please come inside, sweetheart. It's horribly hot out here."
Picking up my suitcase and guitar I follow as she leads me through the front doorway. Nick steps back, but I notice he continues to stand guard over Becca as he gauges me. I can feel his eyes tracking my movements, and wonder what he's worried I'm going to do. Becca has me put my things in the entry way. She notices my guitar case, but doesn't mention it.
The house is cool and dim and as charming as the outside. We pass the front parlor with its floral cozy chairs, antique tables and stained glass lamps. An ornate wood fireplace is the focal point of the room, a large gilded mirror perched above. To my left is a narrow staircase leading up to the second floor, photographs lining the wall. I think I see one of my mom, but my aunt has my hand and is leading me into the kitchen.
"Ben, look whose here."
My uncle looks up from his breakfast, his coffee mug stilling halfway to his lips as recognition dawns. "Well, hello there." He must see how unsure and nervous I am because he smiles at me, his blue eyes crinkling up at the corners. His face is kind and warm, just like in the pictures Becca had sent. Relief makes me smile, too. "Now this is definitely a surprise."
Feeling awkward, I stand by the table, unsure what to do. I don't know what to call him. Or Becca. They are my family, and I'm their niece, but we don't know each other. They are strangers I am related to. And with all the years of silence, and things left unsaid between us, I can't expect the familiarity and connection yet. I wonder if they will let me stay long enough for that to change, and fervently hope they do.
I thought they would be angry, but both my aunt and uncle are smiling and happy and seeming to hold nothing against me. I'm stunned to be welcomed in so willingly. Only Nick doesn't seem to want me there. He stands in the doorway silently watching me. I don't look at him. His suspicion and mistrust crowd me. I can't seem to move without bumping up against them.
Becca walks towards the stove. "Are you hungry? We were just about to have breakfast."
To be polite, I was going to tell her I wasn't, and I didn't want to impose, but my stomach growls, betraying me. I hadn't eaten anything since the morning before when I left California. I'd been too upset to keep anything down. "I guess I am," I admit, giving her an embarrassed smile. "Thank you."
"Please have a seat, honey." She flutters around the kitchen, full of nervous energy, getting an extra plate, some silverware. She scoops a big helping of eggs, plucks off two strips of bacon from the pan. "There's coffee or juice if you'd like."
Still feeling completely out of place, I find the first chair I see and sit down across from my uncle. "I'll have some coffee, please."
She pours me a cup, hands it to me. I notice the blue mug has a rooster and the words Rise and Shine painted on it. "Sugar and cream are on the table." She turns back to the stove and carries over a pan of cornbread.
I take a quick second to look around. The kitchen is the heart of the house. The warmth surrounds me as I take in the expose beamed ceilings and handcrafted cabinets and the brick hearth. Copper pots dangle above the large range stove, the pantry is stocked full of food and tin canisters, sacks of flour and spices. Delicate floral china plates are displayed up on a shelf above the doorway. Sunlight streams in and spills over the scarred plank floors. Scents of coffee, baked bread and bacon fill the room along with the warm breeze drifting in from the screen door that led out towards the pastures. It makes me feel strangely content.
My soft mood quickly fades as Nick sits down next to me. He doesn't say a word, but his silence and hostility are like a fog horn blaring. My body tenses. I don't even try to defend myself. He couldn't be thinking anything about me I haven't already beaten myself up for. Needing the comfort of the heat, I hold my coffee between my two hands and stay quiet as I sip it.
Becca brings over butter and jam, sets both down next to the cornbread. If I hadn't been looking at her I wouldn't have caught the way she brushed her hand over Nick's shoulder, almost as if she's reassuring him. "Lexy, this is Nick Walker. He helps us out around here. He lives in the cottage out back. He and Ben grew up across the road from each other. Ben's known Nick since he was in diapers."
Nick scowls at her. "Thanks," he mutters. The sound of his voice again makes me want to look over at him, but I don't dare. I remember how dark his eyes are. It's unnerving.
"I don't think she needs a picture of that, Becca," Ben says and winks at me and I manage to relax a little more. Something about him puts me at ease.
"Probably not," Becca says and laughs; the sound is pretty and light and fills the kitchen. I don't remember the last time I heard my mom laugh, much less smile. Fascinated, I can't help but stare at her. She is so much different than what I expected. She isn't cold or angry or bitter. In fact, there's nothing about her that gives me any clue as to why my mom would want to shut her out of her life. Becca is still smiling as she sets a plate full of food in front of me. "Anyway, Nick has been living with us for a couple of years now. We couldn't run this place without him."
"You help with the horses." I remember him now. "You mentioned him in your letters."
Nick gives Becca a sharp look that seems to speak to something no one was supposed to talk about. A tense quiet falls over the table. Becca flushes and seems to stammer a little before quickly changing the subject. She gives me a bright smile that seems forced. "I wish I would have known you were coming. I would have cleaned the house up a little bit."
The food suddenly loses its taste. My forks clumsily clangs onto my plate, the sound much too loud. I have a hard time swallowing it down and drink some coffee. It's hot and burns my tongue but I barely feel it. I had thought about calling her to let her know I had found the letters and wanted to come see her, but how was I going to tell her I hadn’t known when my mom was going to wake up from the blackout? There had been too much I would have had to explain over the phone. It had been easier to just come before I had a chance to change my mind.
"It was kind of a last minute decision," I say quietly. I can barely look at her, too afraid she'll see everything I've done, what I am, how I've failed. "I flew out last night."
Becca knows there’s more. I catch the worried look she exchanges with Ben. I can tell she wants to ask and I tense up, waiting for the questions I have no idea how to answer. But thankfully all she says is, "Oh honey, you must be exhausted."
Her kindness is making me feel guilty. I don't deserve it. "I slept a little on the plane." I hadn't, but I want to make this as easy as possible for her.
Becca sits down next to Ben. "After breakfast I'll take you up to the guest room, and you can get settled, and lay down for a bit."
I can feel Ben watching me, reading me. My anxiety builds as I wonder if he's figured everything out. I already know his first instinct is going to be to protect Becca from more hurt and disappointment. From me. What if he asks me to leave? Nervously, I bite my lip and risk looking over at him, but all I see in his eyes is concern and realize he feels sorry for me. I hadn't expected him to. It flusters me. I must not be hiding my fear very well.
"Nick, why don't we give these two some time to catch up?" he says, still looking at me. Without waiting for an answer, Ben gets to his feet, gives me another easy smile. "Glad you're here, Lexy. Hope you'll stay for a bit." He brushes his hand over Becca's hair as he moves past. I notice how sweetly she smiles at him and feel a pang of loneliness. My parents never looked at each other like that. I can't even remember the last time they were actually in the same room together.
Nick reluctantly pushes his chair back and stands up. He doesn't look at me as he carries his cup of coffee and silently follows Ben out the back door. I don't let out my breath until the screen closes after him. I can't figure out why he makes me so nervous. I don't even know him.
When it's just the two of us, Becca finally asks the question I'm dreading. "Does she know you're here?"
At least I don't have to lie. "Yes." I press my lips together as I cautiously gauge her expression, wondering if she'll ask how my mom is, what her life is like, if she ever talks about her, if she misses her. Why she's done what she's done. The blame of all her choices rests on me.
Becca must sense my torment because she doesn't push for more, although I can tell how badly she wants to know. Her eyes, my mother's eyes, search over my face. "You look a lot like her," she murmurs, resting her chin in her hand.
"So do you," I say, my throat tight. I want to tell her how sorry I am for not coming sooner, for not trying to find her before now, for believing the lies. I want to explain what it would have done to my mom if I had tried. I wanted to tell her I just hadn't known, but I can't. The words won't come. I don't know where to start. All I'm able to say is, "Thank you for the birthday card."
Tears fill her eyes and she lets out a shaky sigh. "You're welcome, sweetheart." Sniffling, she gently pats my hand. "Now finish up your eggs. You must be starving."
I was, in so many ways I didn't know how to talk about. Saying it all out loud would hurt too much and I'm still feeling too overwhelmed and fragile. I'll break down completely. The kitchen is bright and sunny and I finish every bite on my plate. It's the first breakfast I've eaten in years with more than just me at the table.