Ch. 28 Photographic Evidence

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Some angel must have helped him arrive safely home, because he could not for the life of him remember the drive itself. He stumbled inside, dropping his bags on the floor and climbing up the stairs to his bedroom.

Where was it? He half fell to the floor. Rifling through the drawer in the stand next to his bed, he pulled out papers, notes, lists, old cards and, there from the bottom, the letter he had been searching for. His letter from Erica. He sat on the floor and opened it carefully to read, although he had the words memorized.

It was dated right before their marriage. At that time, nothing but happiness on the road of together stretched far beyond the horizon before them. It was dated three years before he killed her.

On the highway when he held her, thigh bone thrusting red and gory out of her leg, blood rushing across the hot pavement, and half of her face a blackened smear, she had told him about it.

"Let her, let her," she whispered. She sighed, a strained 'ah.' "...love you."

At the time it sounded like 'Let her love you,' but later he understood it was 'Letter. I love you.'

Perhaps she forgave him in those moments she lay dying. He could never forgive himself, though. The letter was simply a reminder of all he had destroyed and lost.

Dearest Russell,

Since I'm terrible about telling you how I feel, I wanted to put it in a letter for you to find. If you are reading this, then obviously, you finally cleaned out your boxes from college, or I found the courage to give it to you.

I have been blessed beyond words in my life. How many people in this world ever once experience the joy and love that I have known? That you've given me since we have been together? I want to say thank you.

Thank you for loving me and thank you for teaching me to truly live.

As we walk on the path we've chosen together, it doesn't matter how many times we get sidetracked or blocked, we will find a way. No matter what difficulties the future holds, I'll always be with you and in your heart, just like you are in mine.

I'll be there beside you. Always and forever, our love will keep us strong.

Together we will live, love, travel and build—find whatever life still has to give us, we will face. And I want you to know that I love you. I love you. I love you.

Erica

Russell choked on a sob and held the letter away so his tears would not fall on the paper and blur the ink.

From the moment she had crashed, he had never moved forward. His life was frozen at the exact moment she was taken from him. Her grey-blue eye from the half of her face that was whole gazing at him while strands of her brown hair whipped around his wrist, forever turning in his head.

There was nothing to look back at; the empty space around him had him trapped. No forward, no behind, only an eternity of the last minutes watching her breathing slow and feeling her body go still.

This was why he could not love Beth; he had given everything to Erica and then watched her die. And other people could tell him it wasn't his fault, but he had been the one who wanted to go on the motorcycles.

He was dried out and old at only thirty-four. His existence was a desert that he wandered through day after day with no water to drink or shade from the sun. He lay across the bed, silent tears wracking his body until sleep and oblivion took him.

Several hours later, hunger woke him up. His head ached and his mouth was dry as though he had been drinking. In the kitchen, he had two glasses of water and ate an expired yogurt while standing over the sink. His briefcase with his laptop were still in the hallway and he picked them up to work at the counter. Tossing the empty yogurt container, he powered up his laptop. It was doubtful he would be able to sleep any more that evening, so he might as well get a head start on his work for tomorrow.

And he owed it to Beth to look at the pictures she had taken of their trip, as much as he wished he could forget everything that had happened. This project could make or break her employment. Hitting the slideshow function, he braced himself with his hands on either side of the laptop, ready to get this over with. Later, he could go downstairs and smash something.

One by one, Beth's photos filed past his eyes, the story of their trip together. And one by one they each struck him deeper and deeper through his gut until he had to hold himself upright with the counter.

He hadn't known. He hadn't seen what she had seen; not in the flowers, the trees, the plumes of smoke from the volcano, the waves on the rocks, the buildings or the people's faces. And he certainly hadn't seen himself.

In all there were a dozen photos of him that he had not noticed her taking. Stealing. Fleeting images of some other man, lucky enough to spend a week with a woman who captured pure beauty in the midst of the chaos and pain that life is.

He was on the boat after they went parasailing; Diamond Head and Waikiki were in the background. He remembered he had been thinking that Erica would have loved it. He looked awful.

There were a couple of him at the Botanical Gardens, reading a sign about falling cannonballs. He was walking across the parking lot at Pele's Lava Café, calm and cool in his new Panama hat. Two pictures were of him working like the nerdy writer he was at the Volcano House.

Next, he was on the lava field before Beth's shoes started melting, shadowed and surrounded by darkness. One was of him with Mr. Takedo—the old man who had lost his wife—standing under the plumeria trees, faded flowers at their feet. One photo was framed by the foliage at Rainbow Falls while he was leaning over the rail recalling that he had almost killed himself there.

Then there was one where he was trying to make heads or tails of the tent poles and camping equipment, followed by him greeting his neighbor in front of the bungalow. He was walking around the green church in Hanalei, trying to peek in the windows. Then the last photo of him flashed on the screen. He was smiling and putting beach gear in the rental car at the bungalow. He was actually smiling. Is that what he looked like on their trip? Is that how she saw him?

He had transformed over the course of their week together. Beth wasn't pulling him under. She was pulling him up. She had dragged him from his abyss and caught it with her camera as proof.

From both feet in his own private hell up to freedom.

A wave of nausea hit him and he rushed to the bathroom in case he threw up. He kept it down by splashing cold water on his face and neck. When he lifted his head, his reflection was staring back at him with sunken eyes and dry hollow cheeks. He might as well be a corpse. A walking corpse passing the time until death caught up with him.

Is this who I am? he wondered. And if so, what the hell happened to the man in Beth's pictures?

***Beth

Beth watched, drained of emotion as Russell walked away from her at the airport. Ray was prattling on and on about how she wanted to hear about everything that had happened and to see all her pictures, but at that moment, Beth did not know what had happened or where to start with the story. The trip might as well have been taken by someone else or in some other dimension.

"Beth, sweetheart!" her mother cried and folded her in a big hug. "I am so glad you're back safe and sound. You look exhausted. Let's get you home, huh?"

"Hey, Mom. I am exhausted, but I'm actually hungrier than anything else." Was this true? Maybe it was food and vodka that she needed, but in either case she'd be better off starting with food. "Can we pick up something on the way home?"

They figured out where they would eat—Ray dragging her forward and still begging for information while Joyce pressed her lips together firmly in disapproval Beth knew so well.

Two hours later, Beth unlocked her door and threw her things next to the sofa before collapsing on it. Ray flopped down beside her. Her mother stood over them with her arms crossed.

*** Thank you for reading! The picture is how I imagine Erica when she and Russell first met many years ago. A little timid and very young. Can Russell forgive himself? Does he deserve forgiveness? And what does Beth's mother have to say now? Please vote or leave a comment to let me know. Also, you can share by pushing the icon at the end to let your friends know you are reading a great book (I hope that's what you think!)! ((Hugs)) ***

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