Resting my arms on the fence, I smile to myself as I watch the horses lazily graze. The sky beyond is streaked in shimmering shades of lavender and pink and gold. Summer sunsets on this ranch were unlike anything I've ever seen before. The heat has eased just a little and a soft breeze rustles the grasses and trees, stirs my hair. The land and flowers have been soaking all day under the sun which makes their fragrance even more potent and sweet.
Our golden lab, Abraham, has followed me across the pasture and is rolling around in the grass, trying to itch his back and find somewhere cool. He'd been a stray that had wandered onto our land a few years ago and decided he wanted to adopt us. He's useless as a guard dog, but is so sweet, you can't help but love him. He must sense I'm hurting because he doesn't go far.
Closing my eyes, I listen to the sounds of the evening. Crickets, cicadas, the whinnying of the horses. This land is so deeply a part of me, and has been since I was born. Even the dust is ingrained into my blood, whether I want it to be or not.
Some could ask me how I can stand to stay, and it would be because of moments like this, where the rest of the world begins and ends right here. I have rediscovered and reclaimed the beauty here. I'd had to strip it down to it's barest core and completely start over, but I finally found it.
I remember what happened here. Not one moment passes that I am not haunted by what he did to us. And, I have to remind myself to put one foot in front of the other so my past won't bury me. Every day I choose to move forward is one more day I don't end up like him.
Nights like these, with brilliant sunsets and summer grasses and wounded horses that used to trust no one, now prancing joyfully across the pasture, are what make me smile and hope and be able to get out of bed in the morning.
And, now, my niece is here. I've waited so long to meet her, to know her, to have my family back. I never gave up hoping that someday, one of them would come find me. Year after year, I wrote Victoria, desperately hoping for some acknowledgement, some tiny flicker of response.
But there had been nothing.
My sister's wall of silence had been inpenetrable and excruciating. Silence really can scream. I've cried over it, raged, prayed, and lost sleep. I understand why she left; he left her no choice. The day she was legally able to leave, she ran, and never looked back. And left me behind to pick up the pieces alone.
The abuse was worse for her than me. I was invisible to him which is terrible in it's own way. He targeted her more. They were too alike, and he knew it. He punished her for it, for reminding him constantly of his failure, and everything he hated about himself.
That's why I couldn't give up on her. No matter how far away she ran, she’s still my sister. And my hope has always been that one day she'd remember that she needed me and every secret promise we'd made to each other.
I'm so grateful I kept believing because finally, after years of waiting and wishing and wondering, my niece has arrived on my doorstep.
But along with her comes my past. I instantly flash back to hiding under the porch with my sister while our father staggered, shouted and swore above our heads. I don't even know how many hours we spent under there, in the sweltering heat, in dirty clothes, no food, and bare feet, having to listen to our mother cry and beg him to stop hurting her. I flinch as his slurred, angry voice echoes in my ears.
There will be more I will have to deal with and remember. I know Lexy will ask me what happened to us, and I'll have to relive every terrifying, violent moment of my childhood. I'll do it for her because I believe she deserves to know the truth. I just hope I'm strong enough to stand on this side of the destruction and not get sucked back under. That fear is why I hold on tight to moments like these where there is quiet and peace and no tears.
"There you are."
Ben always knows where and when to find me. My heart still quickens whenever I look at him. I would have thought the sweet rush would disappear the longer we were together, but my love for him has only grown deeper. He's my best friend, the only one I want to tell everything to. I smile as he comes up beside me. The way he looks at me still makes me blush. He stands close enough to where our arms touch.
He falls into the silence, absorbing it, and me. We watch the horses together as the sun sinks lower behind the trees.
"How're you doing?" he finally asks.
"I can't believe she's really here." Looking over at him, I drink in his face; his smile, his eyes, the way the sun has kissed his skin. Everything about him reassures and calms me. "She's so sad, Ben," I murmur, thinking of the shell shocked girl with dark, haunted eyes that had stood on my front porch a few hours before. Was it really just that morning? "I've never seen someone so sad. " Except my own sister. "What was happening to her out there?"
He shook his head, his expression grim. "Whatever it is, it's bad enough that she came all the way here to get away from it. She looks scared to death."
"She said she just found my letters." I think of Lexy holding up the wrinkled pink envelope. "I've been writing to them for years. How come she only found them now?"
"I don't know," Ben says. "What do you think your sister will do?"
I lift my shoulders helplessly. "I have no idea." My eyes fall from his as I realize that the sister I've held onto all this time is basically a memory. That's all I have left of her. We've both become different people in all the space and time that has been pushed between us. I wonder if we would be able to recognize each other now. "I used to know her better than anyone. But it's been years since I've even heard her voice."
"Have you called her?"
"No. Lexy said they know she's here. I don't want her to feel I'm betraying her trust by contacting them. Besides, I doubt Victoria would even answer. She never has before."
"Maybe Lexy being here will finally push Victoria to do something."
"Maybe," I murmur. I'm almost afraid to hope for it. I've waited so long but, up until now, nothing has changed. I look back towards the horses, feeling the dark threat of the past looming over the land. The sun is barely a shimmer behind the trees now as night approaches. I want the light to come back. I felt so much peace before. Now I feel unsafe and exposed and fight the urge to look over my shoulder, to lay low. He's gone, I remind myself, and wonder if I will have to spend the rest of my life telling myself that.
Instinctively, I move closer to Ben, absorbing his safety and warmth. Understanding, he wraps his arm around me, his lips brushing softly against my temple.
"Have you been able to find out anything more from Lexy?" he asks.
I shake my head. "Not much. The poor thing was exhausted when she got here. I didn't want to push her. She's been asleep the whole day."
"She looked worn out. It's like she ran for her life to get here."
I wince. "I know." I had thought the same thing. "But from what?"
"I'm sure you'll find out soon enough. I imagine she has a lot of questions for you."
"I'll bet she does," I agree quietly. "I just hope she's able to handle the answers." I hope we both are. I tilt my head so I can see his eyes. "She looks so much like her, Ben. It's like looking at Victoria twenty years ago." Past Ben's shoulder, I see Nick walking one of the horses back into the stable. "Nick doesn't seem too happy that she's here."
Ben follows my gaze, turns his head. "He just doesn't want to see you hurt. You know how he is with new people. He doesn't know her yet."
I pull back. "Neither do I."
"You will," Ben soothes, tucking one of my curls behind my ear. "She's here because she wants to know you. You're her family."
"I'm scared, Ben," I admit helplessly. "How am I going to tell her what he did to us?"
"You'll figure it out." He gently rubs my back. "Just spend time with her. That's all she wants."
What if she decides she doesn't want to know who I am? What if she realizes she regrets coming to find me? What if we both shatter under the crushing weight of the truth? Sensing my uncertainty, Ben pulls me back to him and I rest my head on his shoulder. I've always believed him. There's no reason to stop now.
The trees and barn are shadowed silhouettes against the horizon. The horses are playing and whinnying. And my niece is finally here, and is sleeping up at the main house. I again focus on this one moment where I am safe and loved and no longer have to hide under porches and under beds.
Morning will be here soon enough and I'll face a young girl who, just by knocking on my front door, has opened up Pandora's box.