How could he? How could he ever have done what he did and live to talk about it? Or not talk about it as it was the case. He had never meant to hurt her in any way. Hell, he didn’t even know of her existence when it all went down. Maybe it would be better to leave things the way they were. Ignorance is bliss people say; maybe he should just keep on not-talking about it. She would never know and he- well, he would feel remorse eating him from the inside out for the rest of his life every time he looked at her beautiful trusting face. He did not want to mar that innocence, break that fragile veneer of trust she carried in her heart. On the other hand, what kind of man would he be allowing her to love someone whom she most likely would hate if truth be known? He had a list of things he needed to do. The very first thing was always “confess”. Every day it went unchecked. He just couldn’t make himself do it.
Most of the items in the list had been checked quickly. Establish a fund for the child, checked! Quit drinking, checked! Get a solid job, checked! But confess? That was by far the hardest. Quitting his drinking habit hadn’t been so tough. He was not really an alcoholic. Not yet anyway. He did not depend on the drug and didn’t even crave it. Some people ate comfort food or indulged on ice cream to make themselves feel better. He drank. But he didn’t miss it enough to drive him crazy. Alcohol had got him into this mess and he sure wasn’t going to allow a substance to mess with his life again. The job was a little harder considering his criminal record. Even a misdemeanor was frown upon by most employers and having a master’s degree did not hold a candle to the fact he had spent a few months in the clink. It didn’t matter he was innocent –well, mostly. Eventually he did get a good job, a job that against all odds not only paid well but one he thoroughly enjoyed. The child fund had been easy to set up once he was actually making money. A good chunk of his wages went straight to the fund. No questions asked.
Confessing was so much more complicated. He didn’t expect her to be this amazing; a creature of beauty inside and out. A heart of gold, generous to a fault, Layla was so much better than him. If humans were sorted by value, he would be on the very bottom with the grubs while she would be up with the angels. Best of all, and for reasons he himself couldn’t explain, she loved him. And he loved her for it. He loved her with a passion and a depth he didn’t know he was capable of. Everything that was him belonged to her now. Not because she asked but because he couldn’t help himself. Body and soul, he belonged to her and just like the air he breathed, he needed her. Layla made him a better man, one he could actually respect… but the secret lurked around every smile, every moment of tenderness. He knew he had to confess but didn’t know how.
How would he tell her without snuffing that brilliant light shining from within her? The darkness in his heart was for him to carry alone. And yet, he must share some of his demons with her if he was to confess. No matter what path he took, she would be hurt one way or another… and so would he. His heart bled just thinking of it, a deep seethed throbbing pain that grew in intensity every time she was near. Every time he thought of telling her about that night. The night he had unwittingly played a major role in the death of her fiancée.
He had been drunk. Stupid drunk. Joe was our designated driver for the night. He had volunteered because he had an early morning appointment with the priest who was going to marry him and his childhood sweetheart, Layla. They hadn’t been friends very long. Having moved to the area recently, he had been more than happy to accept Joe as a friend, something he quite lacked those days. Their mutual interests pulled them together and even though they had known each other for such a short time, their friendship had quickly flourished. Joe often talked about his girl, the love of his life as he always referred to her.
If truth be told, he was so drunk he had only a very sketchy memory of what had happened that night. When it was time to go home, Joe had tried to get behind the wheel but he had, in the way the very sloshed often do, insisted on driving himself. It did not end well. By morning, he had woken up in the ER, bleeding and bruised after being rescued from something that no longer resembled a car. “You were lucky you survived,” the staff at the hospital told him. He did not feel lucky. He felt stupid. And soon he would feel something that defied explanation; the pain and the remorse you feel when you find out you have been the cause of someone else’s death.
He had never understood why the police had not charged him with involuntary manslaughter that day. He had got away with just a DUI charge that landed him in prison for a few days and off the roads for over a year. Yet, he convicted himself of murder and he was to spend the next couple years trying to make up for it with little success. People at the hospital, not knowing he had been the one behind the wheel had described Joe as barely alive on arrival. “He was so badly hurt,” a nurse had told him, “it was hard to recognize him as a human being.” Joe had never made it to his wedding appointment and his pregnant fiancée was to be a widow before she was a wife. Worst of all, he was the one responsible.
Now, he had to tell Layla her gentle love had been wasted on a monster for the past few months. That the man who had so many times professed his love for her had been the one responsible for the death of her child’s father. That his irresponsible move that night had irreversibly changed the course of her life. He could already see in his mind the expression on her lovely face and eyes quickly changing to red hot hate; her hand swatting him angrily across the face, despise pouring out with each hateful word, betrayal reflected in her tearful eyes. He hated himself but today was the day he checked that item off his list. It was time.
That morning, after they had their usual cup of coffee in a local coffee shop, he told her; the whole sordid story. His eyes did not have the courage he had somehow found in his heart to do this and they cowardly hid beneath half-closed lids. Eventually he had to look at her, to check for her dreaded reaction, to be able to say I’m sorry and goodbye, to accept whatever she threw his way because he deserved it. He deserved every bit of anger, every bit of hate she would undoubtedly shower him with. To his utter surprise his eyes met not an angry face but a compassionate one. Even in her anger, she was merciful.
“I’m so sorry,” he said feebly, feeling the apology was totally inadequate to cover for all he had done. But what other words were there? “I am so, so sorry Layla. I will understand if you never forgive me.”
She smiled, a gentle sad little smile. “I forgive you for waiting this long to tell me,” she admitted. “But I can’t forgive you for something you really didn’t do.”
His mouth slackened at her statement. “I killed your fiancée. What do you mean?”
“You didn’t kill him,” she said, reaching for his hand across the table. “He was not in the car with you when you crashed.”
“Of course he was!” he protested, confused by her. “People told me he had died that morning from his injuries. I saw his mom and dad crying in the waiting room.”
Her thumb caressed his hand absentmindedly. “Yes, he died that morning,” she agreed. “But he was not with you. You drove away alone that night. Joe was hit by a truck that morning crossing the road from the parking lot to the church where he was meeting me.”
The shock of this revelation hit him so hard he was having trouble catching his breath. “What? Joe was not with me in the car? He died in an unrelated accident?” he exclaimed, surprise, relief, shock all tangled up inside his chest. It all made sense now; he had never been charged for his death because he had had nothing to do with it. He had hurt no-one but himself that night. Relief washed over him like a wave of fresh water. The breath he has unconsciously been holding for the last minutes rushed out and tears –of happiness or pain, he was not certain – rolled freely down his face.
Layla stood up and came to sit next to him. “My sweet silly love,” she cooed, holding him in her arms, “You have been holding this painful secret all this time? I can’t imagine the weight of all that guilt. You should have told me sooner.”
“I was afraid you would hate me, not that I would blame you,” he confessed, lifting his face from her shoulder to look into her eyes. “But I couldn’t bear just thinking about it. I love you so much.”
“I love you, too,” she whispered before kissing him.
Before they left the coffee house, his hand dug inside his pocket and pulled a ratty, half-torn piece of paper. “There is something I need to do,” he said, unfolding it. The paper held his list of things to do. Everything had been checked except the first item. He reached for the pen on top of the table and without delay proceeded to check it. Then, he rolled the paper into a ball and threw it across the room into the waste basket. “Now, my life begins.”
Art credits: Guilt by Mark Nickels