THE PHOTO TRAVELER

By Arthur Gonzalez All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Scifi

CHAPTER 27

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

I’m crying and my whole body is shaking. “Bud! Don’t do this to me! Please, Bud!”

“Bud!” Estelle’s sobbing voice echoes from behind me. I reach for her hand, but she staggers and then faints. Fortunately a waiter catches her and sets her down on the carpeting. Another waiter grabs a glass of cold water and a napkin and runs over to her.

I don’t know what to do. I feel helpless... paralyzed. All I see is Bud convulsing on the floor with his mouth shot open. Parts of his body thrusting sporadically.

A middle-aged man kneels down next to me and pulls off his belt. “I think he’s having a stroke! Or a seizure!” he shouts, and wedges the leather strap between Bud’s teeth. As the man places his hands on Bud’s chest to start CPR, Bud’s eyes open suddenly, then roll up and back into his head.

I try to wipe away my tears, but they keep pouring out, and I’m flashing back to the convenience store watching Leyla bleed to death. No! Not again! Please, not again! The sound of sirens getting closer pull me back, and I shout to the man performing CPR, “What can I do? Please don’t let him die!”

Bud convulses suddenly. His arm jerks out and his right hand hits the floor with a soft—but to my ears, earsplitting—thud. A team of EMTs carrying stretchers and emergency equipment run in. The crowd parts to let them through.

The waiter who’s tending to Estelle yells at one of the paramedics for help. Her eyes are open, but she looks dazed. He starts checking her vital signs while another EMT brings a stretcher over. They place her on it gently.

Everything around me is a blur—shifting colors and shapes and noises and nothingness. The paramedics hook Bud to some kind of scary machine, tearing his shirt open in the process. They begin CPR, then inject him with something. But Bud doesn’t move. Finally one of them yells ‘Clear!’ and presses a button on the machine. I cringe as Bud’s chest jolts up from the ground. Still no movement. The medics resume CPR and the whole scene repeats. Once? Twice? I can’t keep track. The whole scene feels like a dream—no, a nightmare. Eventually the medics sit back on their heels..

I stare blankly as the paramedic starts searching for Bud’s pulse. He and the other EMT who’s been leaning over Bud, exchange glances and nod at each other. She looks at her watch and makes a note on her clipboard.

He stands up and turns to me. I avert my eyes and turn away. I don’t want to hear it!

“I’m very sorry, sir.”

I collapse next to Bud’s body. “Come back! Come back!” But he doesn’t. He never will.

I can’t stop sobbing as I watch the paramedics place his body on a stretcher. I don’t want to watch, but I can’t peel my eyes away.

“No! Bud, no! I can’t do this without you! You can’t leave me!”

An elderly lady, about Estelle’s age, puts her arm around me and holds my face against her chest. “It’s okay,” she murmurs. “I’m so sorry.”

“Estelle! Where’s Estelle?” I break free from the woman and push through the crowd searching frantically. “Where is she?!”

The waiter who had been helping Estelle takes my arm. “They took her outside—”

I bolt out the door and am stoned by the flashing glare of the ambulance lights. Then my eyes fall on the stretcher that’s holding Estelle. An EMT is checking her blood pressure. I run over. “Is she okay? Tell me she’s okay!” Her face is pale, as if every drop of blood has been drained from her body.

“Her blood pressure’s up, but I think she’s more in shock than anything. Still, she should be checked out at the hospital. Are you family?”

“Yes, her grandson! Yes, take her to the hospital! Please don’t let anything happen to her!”

As the EMTs load her into the ambulance, I clasp her cold hand. It hangs limply in mine, and she’s staring blankly into space, tears spilling over her cheeks.

I try to tell myself that I have to remain strong for her, but I can’t, and I break down again. I hug her but she doesn’t seem able to respond.

The paramedic puts his hand on my shoulder. “If you want to stay here while they... take care of your grandfather, that’s okay. We’ll get her to the hospital, and I’ll make sure that one of the officers escorts you over there later.”

I’m trapped in a living nightmare that I still can’t believe. I wipe my eyes and nod. “Let me just give her a kiss.” I climb into the ambulance and kiss her forehead. “I’ll be there as soon as I can. I promise.”

I hop down out of the ambulance and watch it speed off. I’m barely aware that there are a couple of dozen restaurant patrons gathered around in a circle, staring at me. The boy who has just lost his grandfather. I look up at the sky wondering why. Why? After fourteen years of loneliness and abuse, I finally find my family—people who love me—and it’s taken from me again.

A policeman comes over to me with a notebook. “Sir, I’m sorry to bother you. Are you a relative of the deceased?”

I stare at him. “The ‘deceased’?” I can’t hold back my grief and my rage. “He’s not the ‘deceased’! He’s my grandfather!”

He looks disconcerted by my anger. “I’m so sorry,” he says, and then asks me a series of questions about exactly what had happened, and whether Bud had shown signs of any health issues. I manage to calm down enough to explain about his cold and then describe how he had been coughing during dinner before excusing himself to go to the restroom, and how he had said he thought he was having gas pains.

“We thought nothing of it,” I say. “Neither of us did. But I should’ve paid more attention. I could’ve prevented it.”

The policeman shakes his head. “Hey, now... you can’t go blaming yourself. There’s probably nothing you could’ve done. Unfortunately, sometimes these things just happen.” After he finishes making his notes, he hands me his card. “There’ll have to be an autopsy. It looks like a heart attack, but since a doctor wasn’t present to document the cause of death, it’s the coroner’s job to try to pin it down. It’ll take a day or two, and after that you and your family can make the funeral arrangements.” He hesitates, then places his hand on my shoulder. “It seems you loved your grandfather very much. I’m very sorry for your loss.”

I watch in horror as Bud’s body is wheeled out and placed in the back of a white van—they’ve put him into what looks like a black plastic trash bag. Like yesterday’s rotten garbage! How dare they! I’m about to lose it again and start punching at everything around me, but just as I’m about to let fly, a female police officer comes over and introduces herself. “I’m Officer Rogue. I can take you to the hospital anytime now so you can see your grandmother. But you just take your time. Let me know when you’re ready.”

I sit in silence during the entire ride to the hospital. All I can think of is how the people I truly love always seem to somehow tragically disappear from my life.

When I reach the floor where Estelle’s hospital room is, the nurse attending her meets me at the desk and explains, “She’ll be fine. Her blood pressure is still elevated, but we’ve given her some medicine to try and stabilize it. More than anything, she’s in shock and needs your support. She won’t talk to any of us, so... I’m sure it’ll do her good to see you.”

Before I can bring myself to go into Estelle’s room, I check my swollen eyes in a mirror. I don’t want her to see signs of my tears. I walk into the two-bed room and quietly knock on the door. The curtains around her bed are pulled.

“Estelle?”

No answer. I ease myself through the curtains and my heart aches when I see her lying there. Her face is colorless, and she doesn’t seem to realize I’m there and goes on staring blankly at the wall as if Bud is standing there.

“Estelle… Are you okay?”

Still no response. I place my hand on her frigid arm. I have to struggle to hold back tears again. Ever since I arrived and she and Bud took me in, it was always the two of them together, united in a partnership that went back 60 years. There was never a Bud if there wasn’t an Estelle, and vice-versa—like the relationship between Carl and Ellie in the movie “Up.”

The thought of her grief stabs at my heart. All I can think about is what Bud said this morning. “If I were to die today, I’d be a happy man.” Had he had a premonition, or was it just a crazy coincidence? Life has a way of throwing those around.

Death seems all too present in my life. I start wondering who’ll be next. It should be me, I tell myself. I wonder where Bud is now. Where do people go after their life on earth ends? I pray that it’s heaven, because I know that’s exactly where Bud deserves to be.

I’m startled when I hear Estelle take a deep breath. She allows a small gasp of air to escape, then finally speaks. “My Buddy... my Buddy has left me. And I didn’t even get to say good-bye.” She gasps again, and tears cascade down her cheeks. “We’ve never spent a day apart since the day we met. Not one. How will I live without him?”

What can I say? Nothing. I perch on the edge of her bed and hug her instead. We sit and cry together. I spring up from her side, inspired by an idea. “Wait…why don’t you travel to him? You don’t have to lose him forever.”

She shakes her head. “We promised each other when we got married that we’d never try to go back if one of us were to pass. We were afraid it might somehow misalign the journey we’d had together.” As she reminisces, a recalled memory causes her to crack a small smile. “He was so adamant about it. He even wrote it in his will. He would always make us promise each other. He used to tell me, ‘My time with you is my most prized treasure. I would never want to change a thing about it. Not one thing.’ And I knew he’d meant it. He loved me so much, Gavin. And now my Buddy’s left me forever...”

She goes silent, overcome by the same intense grief I feel coursing through me, and erupts in tears again.

I try my best to console her, but I know it’s pointless and that I need to let her mourn in whatever way she needs to. So I sit there quietly holding her hand for the next hour, when she raises herself from the pillows, looks around her. “I want to go home,” she says forcefully. “Take me home!”

I’m so shaken up by her outburst that all I can do is find the nurse, who tries to persuade her not to leave. But she refuses. Finally the nurse gives up, as if she’s used to these situations, and hands her a waiver stating that she’s been informed of the possible dangers of her leaving against medical advice. Without even reading the three-page document aloud, she turns to the last page and grudgingly hands it to Estelle to sign.

Estelle is mute and withdrawn during the cab ride home. I don’t have it in me to talk, either, and stare dully at the city lights passing by in endless rows. Clearly, neither of us can think about anything but Bud. When I look over at her, she’s leaning her head against the window and staring up at the star-filled sky.

Maybe she senses that I’m looking at her, because she decides to speak. “You think he’s up there right now looking down at us?”

“I hope so. I really do.” I stretch out my hand and take hers, and she seizes it so hard that it hurts. “What am I supposed to do? My best friend... my partner... my only love. Did you know that we fell in love when we were kids? Ten years old. We used to play husband and wife. We would make up pretend scenarios of our wedding. It was as if our union was written in the stars.” She starts sniffling again. “He was always earlier to things than I was. Always waiting for me with a smile. For everything. He would even tease me, saying he’d be the one to die first, and that I’d be late, but that he’d be waiting for me. And I guess he was right.”

I fight my own urge to cry. “You’re not totally alone. We still have each other.”

She looks down at our linked hands, then into my eyes. She nods and gives me a tiny smile. “You’re sweet, Gavin... I love you.”

“I love you too.” And I’ve never meant anything more.

She gives my hand a squeeze and turns her gaze back to the night sky.

When we get back, I have to help Estelle up the stairs to her room. Their room. I leave her while she changes into her nightgown. I ask her if she wants something to eat, but she shakes her head and gets into the bed. She lies there staring at the empty spot next to her. Bud’s spot. She touches it with her fingertips, then reaches for his pillow. She brings it to her face and breathes in deeply, allowing Bud’s smell to fill her nostrils, then clutches it to her heart murmuring his name.

I go into their bathroom and find her bottle of sleeping pills in the medicine cabinet. I shake out two. As I close the mirrored door, I catch sight of a photo of her and Bud on a shelf above the toilet. An old photo of them—they can’t have been be older than 23—hugging each other in front of the Great Wall of China, with its massive towers and endless stone walkways disappearing in the distance behind them. I grab it to look at it more closely, but my vision is too hazy. God, I miss him terribly. I kiss both of their faces and return the photo back on the shelf just as it was. Then I wipe away my tears and pour out a glass of water so Estelle can take the pills.

“Take these,” I tell her gently. “You need to rest. Please.”

Surprisingly, she doesn’t put up a fight. She grabs the pills and swallows them in one giant gulp.

I pull up a chair next to the bed and sit rubbing her arm softly until grief, exhaustion, and the pills force her to surrender to sleep. The deep lines of sorrow on her face smooth out and she looks peaceful.

Before I leave, I move a strand of her silver hair from her temple so I can kiss her and whisper, “I hope you’re dreaming about him.”

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