Forty-Two Minutes

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Chapter Eight

NICK

The nightmare snuck up on me. It always starts out the same. The summer rain, the song on the radio, Megan laughing, me looking over at her because I never could help but stare.

And then everything blurs, time freezes. Screeching tires, blinding headlights, glass shattering, my truck rolling and skidding over the wet pavement. And then nothing but that sickening silence when the impact is over and I know I've just lost everything.

Shaking violently and drenched in sweat, I jolt awake with her face so close I swear I could touch and taste her.

It's the loneliest time of night for me. It's late and quiet and I'm completely alone. This is when I miss Megan the most. The dark hides me and I can remember her without anyone watching me and pressuring me to get over the loss of her.

It's hard to be around people all day and act like everything is normal, like I am. That I've moved on and am fine. When in reality, not one second goes by when I don't beat myself up for letting her die instead of me.

I barely sleep anymore. The guilt won't let me. The few times I've managed to drift under, I dream of the crash, the driver coming out of nowhere, Megan screaming my name before the collision and then her being terrifyingly quiet. I'd been pinned under chrome and steel and glass and hadn't been able to get to her. She'd died just inches from my reach. It's agony to open my eyes and have her still be gone. I constantly relive every moment of that night.

The worst part is that the accident really was no one's fault. The other driver wasn't drunk, he wasn't going too fast, and neither was I. It was just one of those freak things that happened, an act of God, a random glitch in the matrix. Even the courts had ruled it an involuntary occurrence. No one got punished or sent to jail and no one was held responsible. There was no justice. No one paid. Which meant there is no one to blame except me.

I can't even find an actual reason or purpose for it. I can't make any sense out of it. It seems I had lost the only girl I'd ever loved for nothing. I've wrestled against the futility of that for the last two years, six months, four days, seven hours. I know when I lost her down to the last excruciating minute.

If I'd just turned one second earlier, if I hadn't looked down to turn up the radio for her favorite song, if I'd been paying more attention, if I'd been going slower. If I hadn't, if I had, if I would have just. I constantly torment myself, trying desperately to figure out that one moment where I could have avoided the crash and saved her. It's become an obsession and is what drives me, tortures me, and won't ever let me rest.

Megan had died on impact, I'd ended up in the hospital for eight weeks with cracked ribs, a broken shoulder and pelvis and a concussion from bashing my head on the steering wheel.

The other guy walked away with just a few scrapes, bumps and bruises. How do you begin coming to grips with something like that? How do I forgive myself for letting it happen? How do I let go of the guilt? It follows me everywhere, waits for me, haunts me at every turn. I don't even try to outrun it. I know I deserve it.

The counselor I'd seen for a few months after the accident told me I had PTSD. It always strikes me as odd how something so huge and dark and overwhelming can be contained in four little letters. As if labeling and diagnosing it, miraculously makes it smaller, more understandable, controlled.

Preventable.

I understand the need to somehow find a way to put your world back together after it's been shattered. A defense mechanism against tragedy and the fear that it could happen again. But, it doesn't matter what you call it. She's still gone. And it's still my fault.

I need to get up. I have to move. The depression will suck me under if I don't. I almost didn't make it out of the pit a few years ago. Ben and Becca came in after me, brought me onto their land, gave me a place to live and time to heal. I've stayed on ever since. They are all I have.

I'm grateful for the distraction of the work on the ranch. It keeps me sane. It gives me a purpose and keeps me from sinking back down into the bottomless pit where there is nothing to do but think and remember and drown. It gives me something useful to do and helps me feel like there might still be something good I can offer.

The horses understand me and I understand them. I need them. They've saved me. They are the one pure thing left in my life.

Getting out of bed, I pull off my sweat soaked shirt, toss it in the hamper. I put on a new one along with my jeans and boots and head out towards the stables.

Our new arrival, Glory, who had been a renowned race horse on the circuit for the last seven years just got brought in today. After she'd stopped winning, her trainers pushed her to keep going, taking her almost to the brink of needing to be put down. How people can be so cruel to animals still continues to shock and enrage me. They were so helpless and as starved for love as the rest of us.

Glory was given up on and neglected to the point that she now was skin and bones, had sores and abscesses along her backside, and had stopped trusting everyone.

We have her in her own independent stall in a separate stable, away from the other horses, where she could begin to heal and we could begin the long process of gaining her trust again.

I've already been kicked and snapped at. She's charged me and reared up when I've gotten too close. I'm encouraged to see that she's still got the spirit and strength of a champion. I'd rather have her fight than not care. It means she hasn't completely given up. Now she just needs to see that we won't give up on her.

After checking her sores for infection and locking her back down for the night, I walk slowly towards the cottage. I'm in no hurry to go to sleep. I'm so lost in thought that the sound of singing doesn't register right away, and absently dismiss it as a radio someone left on during the work day.

It isn't until I'm near the main house that I realize the voice is getting louder and sounds strangely familiar. When I walk around to the front, I see Lexy sitting on the porch swing, her eyes closed, cradling a guitar in her arms, singing one of the most saddest and haunting songs I've ever heard.

She's crying. From the glow of the porch light, I can see the tears on her cheeks as she passionately pours out her heart into the music. I've never seen someone do this before. Fascinated, all I can do is stand there and stare. It's such a fiercely private moment. I know I shouldn't be listening. But, I can't make myself move.

I stand back in the shadows, feeling every ounce of pain inside of her. She pulls me in to where she is and I discover a world exactly like mine. One of loss and waiting and thousands of hopeless questions that never have any answers.

Her voice is beautiful; so pure and heartbroken I can almost see where her soul is bleeding. I can feel her anguish in every note, every word, every breath. I don't notice I'm holding my own. It's more than just a song, I realize. She's making a confession. It's one of the most honest moments I've experienced in years.

This is what devastation sounds like, completely understanding and responding it. Aching and raw and gut wrenching. How does she know pain like this? What had happened to her for this kind of misery to come seeping out of her?

I can't hear anymore but I need to. It's hurting me but in a way that is a relief because someone finally is saying what I can't. No one lets me say these things. They don't want to hear them anymore. Everyone wants me to be fine, to be over it.

But I'm not fine, nowhere near it, and it's in this one moment, with this one girl, I don't have to be. She knows, she gets it. I hadn't realized how badly I needed someone to simply say it all out loud. To give me permission to just feel what I'm feeling. I don't want to be fixed or saved. I just want to be allowed to miss her.

I take a step closer and as I do, my shoulder bumps against the wind chimes dangling from the porch awning. I freeze as the sound gives me away. The music abruptly stops and her eyes fly open. We stare at each other. I don't know if either of us even blinks.

She looks like a deer caught in headlights, frozen and frightened, not sure which way to run. It crosses my mind that we're the same, both exposed in the very place we don't want anyone finding out about or taking away from us. We're both in front of each other with all our pain laid bare.

I wish I could just back up and pretend I hadn't heard her. But she's already seen me. She already knows I've seen her. I awkwardly grab the chimes to stop them from clinking.

"Sorry," I manage, and my voice sounds so loud in the stillness. "I didn't know anyone else was up."

"I couldn't sleep," she stammers, quickly wiping the tears away. The look she gives me is slightly accusing. "What are you doing out here?"

The question annoys me. I don't have to explain anything to her. She's a stranger on this land; I'm not. This ranch may be her inheritance, but I'm the one who knows it like I know my own voice. She's never worked on it a day in her life. She's never even come here. She never once tried.

The thoughts cross through my mind, but I say none of them. The sooner I'm away from her, the better, and keep my face carefully blank.

"I was checking on the horses." I don't tell her I couldn't sleep either. It doesn't really seem to matter right now. I can still hear her voice in my head. I don't understand how she knows so much. When I glance again at her guitar, I notice how she instinctively pulls it closer to her body, as if protecting herself. Uncomfortable, I look over my shoulder towards the cottage, wishing I'd never come over to this side of the house. "Didn't mean to interrupt."

"How much did you hear?" she asks.

Too much, I think, but don't dare say it. I feel trapped. I don't want to talk about this. I still don't know how to explain my own reaction to what I heard. "Only a little bit." I watch her expression go wary and vulnerable. I wonder what she's afraid I'll say. "You're really good."

Her eyes widen as she stares at me, completely stunned, which surprises me. People must tell her that all the time. A train goes by in the distance, its whistle blowing the only sound between us. "Thank you," she finally says, shyly, still looking amazed.

I don't know what to do so I just nod. I finally ask the question I've been carrying around since breakfast that morning. "What did Becca tell you about me in her letters?"

She pauses as if she's remembering, shrugs. "Just that you grew up with Ben and lived on the ranch with them," she answers as she lifts the guitar strap over her head. "And that you help out with everything around here." She sets the guitar on the swing next to her. I notice she keeps her hand on it as if making sure it's never far out of her reach.

"And that's it?"

She looks confused. "Yeah, why?"

I don't want to say too much to find out what she else she might have been told. It seems Becca kept her word. "No reason." I start to turn away.

"You're really important to her."

I glance back at her. "Yeah she's important to me, too." I can hear the accusation in my voice but I don't care. I want her to know she isn't fooling me. "They both are."

She gives me a wounded look. "I'm not here to hurt them."

I don't try to hide the fact that I don't believe or trust her. "Then why come here? Why even bother after all this time?"

She flinches and I see the pain flash across her face. I refuse to let it make me feel guilty. Becca had waited years to hear from her family, for one of them to simply acknowledge her. But she'd gotten nothing but silence. Maybe she was ready to just let the past be the past, but I wasn't. I'd heard her cry too many times. "I didn't know she wanted to know me until now. I just found her letters a few days ago. My mom hid them and told me Becca wanted nothing to do with us."

I don't want to believe her. Not trusting her keeps her at a distance. I frown as I study her. She has to be lying. I don't know why I need her to be. But, her words aren't matching up with the perception I've had in my mind all these years. "Why would she do that?"

"I don't know. That's what I'm trying to find out. My mom won't tell me anything. She never talks about her family or her past." She meets my eyes and this time I don't look away. I'm not sure I can. "Is it true what you said?"

Nothing is making sense. The pieces aren't adding up and the ones that are make me feel sick. And the devastation in her eyes makes it all too clear she's telling the truth. "Is what true?" I ask, trying to keep up. I'm suddenly exhausted.

"That she's been waiting for me."

I hear the desperation and longing in her voice and wish I'd never come out here. I hadn't meant to get this involved. The judgement and anger I've held against her is beginning to crumble. She wasn't indifferent and cold like I had imagined. I can't figure why it's making me nervous.

The porch light is shining right on her face. I've never seen eyes that sad. She looks plagued. What had happened to this girl? I don't want to feel sorry for her, but it's kind of too late for that. She's been pulling at me from the second I opened the front door and saw her. “Yeah, it is. You're her family. She's always wanted to know you."

For a terrifying minute, I think she's going to cry again but, to my relief, she holds it back. People do that a lot, I think absently. Hold everything back. "I still can't believe I'm here. It doesn't feel real yet," she murmurs, looking out down the dirt road as if watching for someone. "This place is so beautiful."

"What did you think it would be like?"

"I don't know. My mom made it sound so different."

"How'd she make it sound?"

"Like a nightmare," she answers so honestly, so plainly, that it makes me stare. I'm not sure what to say. I've heard enough about this place to know she's not wrong. She pulls her hands through her hair. The movement catches my eye and I watch as the dark waves settle over her shoulders. It seems soft. She's quiet so long I wonder if now is my chance to leave. I start to move away but then she speaks again, stopping me. I reluctantly turn back to her. "Did Becca ever tell you anything about my mom? Do you know why she left?"

Helplessly, I look at the upstairs window, praying Becca will miraculously wake up and come down, but the house stays dark. I warily look at Lexy, realizing I'm on my own. I'm completely out of my depth here. I take another step back, trying uselessly to get some distance. Her pain feels like it's surrounding me. I don't have room for both hers and mine. "You really should talk to Becca about this."

Her shoulders sag as she realizes I'm not going to give her anything. Wearily, she nods, looking lost and defeated. I sometimes catch Becca with that same look when she thinks no one is around. What are both of them waiting for? "I just want to understand what makes her do it," she whispers fiercely.

I'm so focused on her it's as if we're the only two awake in the world. "Do what?" I ask because I can't help myself. Why am I letting her get to me like this?

She seems to catch herself, realizing she said too much. She shakes her head, and I can feel her pulling herself back in, away from me. I'm on the outside again, just as I'd told myself I wanted to be. I'm surprised at how it makes me feel.

“Nothing," she answers, her voice dull and detached like someone dealing with the aftershock of war. Her eyes are dark and sad and heavy with her pain.

It's hurting me to look at her. She reminds me of the horses when they first come to us. Scared and battered and just waiting for the next hand that rises up to hurt them. She has that same hopeless resignation they do of expecting to be let down and used. They don't believe in good anymore. Against my will, I feel the need to protect and soothe her. I can't just leave her like this. "I'm not sure if this will help at all, but I think I remember seeing where they carved their names into one of these posts when they were little."

"Really?" Her eyes brighten at this little detail. "Where?"

I bend down and feel around until I find the right one. The names are hard to find, as if the carving was something the two sisters never wanted anyone else to see. "Over here."

She pushes herself off the swing and comes over, crouches down next to me. She reverently traces her fingertips over the jagged letters that spell out her mother's name in the old, worn wood. It's not much to go on, but it is proof that her mom was here. A secret message left behind for her to find. It's a tiny glimpse into a life she knows nothing about.

"How did they carve them all the way under here?" she asks. "It's totally hidden."

"I don't know," I answer, shrugging one shoulder. "I found them a couple years ago when I was doing some repairs."

She turns her head and gives me a grateful smile that makes my gut tighten. "Thank you."

She's too close to me. Her hair smells like flowers, the sweet kind that are growing up the trellis. I feel guilty for even noticing and quickly get to my feet. "I need to get some sleep."

She straightens, nods. "Yeah, I probably should too."

I doubt either of us will. I know I won't. I still can't figure out what just happened out here. She's standing on the bottom step. She's eye level with me which forces me to have to look directly at her. She didn't just look at you, I realize, startled. She absorbed you. And with her back to the light, she's in the shadows, and I'm the one exposed.

Unnerved, I deliberately turn away before she finds another piece of me I don't want to give away. "Night," I mumble, not caring if she hears me.

"Goodnight," she says softly, still standing on the porch step.

I can feel her watching me as I walk away. I don't turn around. I'm annoyed at how much I want to. My mind is racing with questions I know I won't ask. After the little I just heard, I'm pretty sure I couldn't handle the answers.

Even when I'm around the back of the house and inside the cottage with the door shut and locked I still don't feel safe. I have a horrible feeling that absolutely nothing is going to be the same around here.
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