Romance Fiction posted January 5, 2019


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The most important words you will ever say.

Love Letter on a Napkin

by Sally Law

Story of the Month Contest Winner 

Branson Rhoades traveled down highways everyday. It was more than a job, it was a preference, for he was a trucker. He finally reached a place of personal pride when he purchased a 16-wheeler.

He bought a classic American rig in bright red; his wife's favorite color. One of his trucking buddies gave him a great deal on a used one with a rebuilt engine.

Predominantly, he carried produce across the United States from California to Maine.

He was forty-something with graying hair, actually, more gray than brown. A strategic combing was necessary to cover his receding hairline. Personality-wise, he was kind, loving, but a little bit shy. Preferring the open road to his dearest friend and the quiet it afforded him.

He adored his wife and only son, known to travel with him in his younger days. Those family trips were some of his most cherished memories. Many faded pictures were still taped to his dusty cab of those earlier years on the road together. His wife called them--the three amigos.

One thing he did not do was take them along in the winter. The treacherous roadways were too risky for his most valued possessions--his family.

"America's roadways are in terrible shape," he complained one night over supper. "Add the distracted drivers who pull in front of me on an icy roadway . . . I feel like death is imminent. Good thing I know Jesus!"

Maria listened and suddenly grew quiet. He always knew this was a sign; she was getting ready to unload.

"Branson, why don't you try something else or take time off to evaluate what you really want to do. I hear your near death experiences, and it frightens me. Surely, there is something safer or more seasonal."

Branson knew his wife was both wise and protective. But, he wasn't willing to give up being a trucker--just yet.

Branson agreed to give the more southernly route some consideration. He had a contact in his pocket scribbled on a piece of paper. Some guy he bonded with at a Dunkin' Donuts in Boise, Idaho. He had been contemplating the same thing; weary of the hazards on the roadways in winter. They shared harrowing stories over hot cups of strong coffee and several frosted donuts.

***************

It was the middle of February, two days before Valentine's Day, 2002. Branson Rhoades Trucking Service, or just Branson to all who knew him, was making good time to get home for a romantic evening with Maria. He had already stopped and bought her favorite box of gluten-free chocolates. It was twice the price, but she had to have the "gf" ones.

He couldn't find an appropriate card. He seemed emotionally locked in that way, unable to convey how much he truly loved and appreciated her. Not even a Hallmark card!

He climbed into his truck and immediately turned on his heater. The temperature had dropped dramatically in the hour he spent in Cracker Barrel trying to find the candy and non-existent card. He switched on his rear defroster, noticing his mirrors and windows needed defogging before he could head out. With his oil checked, and gas re-fueled, he also double-checked his gauges. Everything looked good to make the scheduled deliveries.

He decided to make a quick call to Maria from the truck stop. His cellphone reception had become non-existent.

"Hey sweetheart, I am on the last leg of my trip. I am just south of the Pocono Mountains. I gotta unload this fruit and catch some sleep so I can get home for our Valentine's dinner tomorrow night!"

"Oh, wonderful honey! I have a surprise for you... can't wait to see you!"

There was a pause for a few seconds. Maria finally spoke, "I love you, Branson!"

"Me, too," he said.

After the call, Branson scolded himself, "Why didn't I say--something . . . poetic, deep, sexy . . . anything."

Staring at himself in his rear view mirrors, he continued to berate himself.

"No, I said, me, too! I should try to stop again down the road, and see if I can find a mushy card. I'll sign it--Mr. Me, too."

The uphill drive through the icy mountains was straining, and there was no chance of stopping for anything that wasn't absolutely necessary. Gas, hours old coffee, and truck stop cuisine had to do.

He stopped for a catnap as he huddled in his cab underneath a knitted afghan Maria had made him long ago.

It was so cold he began to shiver. The temperature continued to drop throughout the day. Snow began to fall, coating the highways and byways. Branson kept an ear to the latest weather and road conditions. CB radio was talking about icy lanes and road closures ahead. A truck was reported to have jack-knifed; closing two lanes. Paramedics were at the scene.

Branson continued on, motivated to get back home to North Carolina and the warm arms of Maria.

He knew of a shortcut that would save time, and was semi-truck accessible. He made a last-minute decision as he turned off the main throughway and onto a smaller highway that wound through the Poconos Mountains. It was a beautiful sight as the setting sun sparkled on the ice-laden trees. He called this, "the postcard scenic route." It lived up to its nickname.

He proceeded uphill, climbing at a near crawl. He had a full load of navel oranges, and would have to be extremely careful. He motored on.

His lights were flashing, and he was in the far-right lane. Not many travelers were on the road that night, but, he continued to practice his road manners and safety. He liked being among the living.

The icy road narrowed, and formed a two-lane highway. Branson began a steep descent after the long uphill climb. He pumped his brakes and mentally stood to attention. His mind and body knew he had reached a precarious place on the roadway. The tension in his hands swept through this entire body as he gripped the steering wheel.

"Okay, Lord, I need your help!"

The mountainous descent felt like it would never end.

He suddenly remembered there was a bridge, an old bridge, at the end of the long, winding highway.

He would need to be going really slow when he hit the bridge, and he just didn't know in this wintry weather exactly how slow that was. To make things worse, he had the maximum weight in his payload.

Branson continued to brake and downshift as he neared the base of the mountain at the old bridge.

He could smell his burning brakes, and knew he could be in real trouble if they did not hold up.

The truck began to skid as he lost control. He felt he was staggering like a drunken man. Branson steered away from the edge of the bridge, but the ice took charge and had refused to let him go. His truck went over the edge just before the bridge. His semi flipped upside down as it plunged headlong into a steep ravine.

The crushing sounds of metal were as loud as his screams. He saw the waters edge and could feel the icy chill as his cab descended. Was it the cold he felt or the chill of death? His right hand cracked loudly as he tried to brace himself. But, the pain was just for a moment . . . .

Everything went black.

The snow continued to fall and covered Branson's truck within an hour. He was unconscious; unaware that no one knew he was there.

When he finally came to, he could hardly move and was shaking from the cold. He knew at least his right arm and hand were broken--possibly some ribs. It hurt to breathe. The icy air was painful as it went in and out of his lungs. His breathing was making a wheezing sound--like air was leaking. The taste of blood was in his mouth.

He reached for his afghan and a pen with his left hand. He couldn't see clearly to find his memo pad so he grasped some napkins he had tucked in the seat from the last truck stop. Opening the cheap Bic pen with his teeth, he began to write:

My sweet Maria,
I love you more than my own life. I am sorry for standing you up for Valentine's Day. I have done a lot of things wrong and missed saying I love you every day like I wanted to. But, I just want you to know as I leave this world, the things I did right all involved you. I love you. I loved being married to you--and I love our son. I will see you in heaven, my dearest love.
Branson xoxoxo

***************

Maria Rhoads knew something was terribly wrong. Her surprise Valentine's Day dinner and chocolate cake were still on the dining room table when she drifted off to sleep. Her eyes were swollen from crying. She had placed a call to the Pennsylvania State Trooper to be on the lookout for her husband and his bright red truck.

She heard no word and continued to hope and pray for the best.

The following evening a knock came at the door. It was the North Carolina Troopers. She felt like she was going to faint. Her son, Branson Jr., had made it home from college to be with her. He stood next to his mother with hopeful eyes.

"Mrs. Rhoades, I am Sergeant Gary Davis with the state troopers. May I come in?"

"Yes, please . . . is Branson . . . my husband, is he all right? May I see Him?" Maria was trembling, certain she would collapse right on the spot.

"Ma'am, I am so sorry, but your husband was found dead this morning buried under a foot of snow in his truck. It veered off the road into a ravine in the Pocono Mountains. I am so, so sorry."

Maria and her son cried and held each other for a long time.

Sergeant Davis teared up at the emotion of it all. He had seen a lot of sadness in his long career.

"I do have something for you, Mrs. Rhoades. Your husband knew he was dying--and wrote you a love letter--on a napkin. It was still clutched in his hands when we recovered his body. He really loved you, Ma'am."


Story of the Month
Contest Winner

Recognized

#26
2019


Thanks to helvi2 at FanArt Review for this superb art.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

Artwork by helvi2 at FanArtReview.com

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© Copyright 2019. Sally Law All rights reserved.
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