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Photo Finish by S. J. Wilcox (1)

Chapter 1 - Lexi

 

 

I know I said I’d be home to see you before you went back to college, but I’ve been delayed,” I breathed into the phone, reaching across the nightstand to turn on the light. “I could drive, but I’d have to stay awake for another 48 hours to get there in time, and that’s not realistic. I can’t even tell you how hard it is for me to be absent from your life. I wish I could be there. I really do.”

I was choking up, trying not to get emotional and have us both crying at the same time. Lynn was my baby sister and best friend. I hated to let her down.

Despite the thin edge of disappointment, Lynn’s voice was still understanding, “I know you’re busy, Lex. Don’t worry about it too much. Mom and Dad have been gracious enough to give me my old room.”

I laughed softly. “How is it?”

“Oh, you know how they can get. A bit suffocating. Mother still dotes on me like I’m their perfect angel. They don’t even know half the things I’ve done. Come to think of it, you were the one who pushed me into most of them.”

“Forever a bad influence,” I joked. “I promise I’ll make it up to you, Lynn. I’ll change my flight. I can come to Chicago and stay with you at your place for a few days. Enjoy some girl time, maybe go shopping. I’ve got a check that’s burning a hole in my pocket.”

Lynn was the type of girl who never had to study—she could read something once and recall it for the rest of her life. While she was embarking on her Master’s in behavioral psychology, I had already found my calling with a camera in my hand. Being a freelance photojournalist had its ups and downs, but the best thing it gave me was flexibility. I could rearrange a few things after this job.

“Maaaaybe I can forgive you this one time. Bring a unique bottle of wine and I might forget it ever happened,” she laughed.

“Deal.”

“Oh my god I’ve got so much to tell you!” she practically squealed with enthusiasm, something she’d clearly been battling to keep in until she saw me in person. “I’m not gonna blurt out every tragic detail right now, but I’ve been seeing two different guys and I’m having a difficult time choosing between the two. And, God, it’s so messy. I know, I know, I know what you’re gonna say.”

“When are you gonna learn, huh?” I sighed, not truly surprised in the least. While I’d always been protective of her, it would be a lie to say I didn’t find her dramatic love life a little amusing.

We both learned a valuable lesson when our little sister Gina died unexpectedly of a brain tumor at the age of 16. Unfortunately, Lynn used that painful experience to justify many of her bad decisions.

“I hate to say this,” she started, “But Gina dying like she did change the way I think of things. Ever since, the world looks completely different. In some way, I’m thankful for that, even though I’d give anything to have her back. I just wanna...live, you know? Even if I’m making mistakes.”

I knew. Too well. Ever since my sister died, I decided right then and there that life had to be lived. Material things meant nothing to me. I quit my full-time corporate job and started taking pictures. I sold my BMW and purchased a used Honda Civic. Yes, having a new car was nice, but it wasn’t worth being a slave to the payment. It had over 150,000 miles on it, so I was able to pay cash. I lived simply. Most of my things fit into one large bag, which I carried with me from place to place. I was rarely ever at my apartment, and did wonder if I should get rid of it entirely, but it was the only place that I could lie my head down at night and call home. It comforted me to know that no matter where I was in the world, there was always a bed and a pillow with my name on it.

“You know I’m not judging you, right? You can tell me anything. I just worry about you, that’s all.”

It’s too bad that it took something like Gina’s death to make us open our eyes. But I had always been grateful for the bond we shared. Most people weren’t as fortunate. At least we had each other.

“I know,” she whined. “And I never listen. I regret not listening to you. Why don’t we just listen to each other?”

I laughed, “I’ve got no idea. Why don’t you tell me?”

“Oh, come on, you don’t listen to me either!”

“Name one thi—”

“Benjamin.”

I stopped, unable to speak for a moment at even the sound of his name. Not because I missed him, but because I couldn’t believe how stupid I’d once been.

She continued, “I told you he was no good, but you didn’t believe me until he left you penniless. I know it’s a raw subject, and I’m sorry for bringing it up. But I’m glad you learned that love is for fools.”

Lynn was jaded, and I had done nothing to assuage her fears by not listening to her and letting Benjamin get too close. I should’ve seen the signs, but I really did think that he was one of the good ones. If history was anything to go by, I wasn’t sure if either one of us would ever find the white picket fence that we dreamed of as children.

After changing the subject back to lighter material, we talked a few more minutes about our parents’ antics before the usual I love you’s. I put my phone away with my hand up to my heart feeling immense gratitude for having a best friend for a sister.

I could feel the heat of the Vegas desert even though I was still indoors. The air conditioning was a nice respite, but it did very little to cool the temperature. I had another job in a few weeks in South Africa, and I was already looking forward to it. I hadn’t been in Vegas long, but I had no interest in the one-armed bandit. Not sure I would be able to sleep in the uncomfortable heat anyway, I grabbed my camera and headed out into the dry night.

I had on a light blue t-shirt which showed the swell of my breasts. I wasn’t wearing a bra. I cared little for men leering at me for longer than they should. There were some that strived for that kind of attention, but for me, it was a matter of comfort. I was comfortable in my own skin, so why should I wear an uncomfortable bra on a casual free day?

I walked at a brisk pace down the sidewalk looking around at the glitz of the night, not at all impressed. I’d never had aspirations to come to this town. It was known for people seeking their fortune the easy way, but there was always the sinister part that nobody wanted to mention.

I was determined to see the underbelly of society wherever I went. Not only because it was great fodder for my camera, but it made me feel more connected, less lost in the bells and whistles. Vegas was a sea of people peddling their wares. It didn’t matter if it was their body, trinkets, or assorted recreational drugs. Everything was for sale here.

Blue jeans hugging my ample frame, I did not exactly take into consideration the heat and humidity that was making them stick to my skin. I rolled up my sleeve and knelt down to get a picture of a transaction between a John and his mistress for the night. I made sure not to get his face, but I did get him passing the money over and I couldn’t help but notice the hungry look of dollar signs in this woman’s eyes.

I felt like a fly on the wall. I’d never been very social in school and I wasn’t entirely comfortable in crowds. This was where I felt safe. Behind the lens. Seeing things that others didn’t want me to see. It was like a drug that I couldn’t get enough of.

I set my camera on auto shoot and continued walking. I liked taking random photos and reviewing them later to see what treasures I may have unknowingly captured.

“I hate to ask, but can you spare a dime for an old veteran?”

I turned to the voice, the camera shutter still capturing the street. A man stared back at me. With a shaggy beard, unruly hair, and clothes that mimicked those of a soldier, he seemed down on his luck, homeless maybe. Something in my chest clenched. He was strangely familiar.

I stopped my lens and dug into my pocket, pulling out a twenty dollar bill. Without thinking about what it was going to be used for, I placed it gingerly into his weathered hands.

“Sorry, this is all I’ve got on me, but it should be enough for something to eat.”

“Lexi, is that you?”

I glanced up from our hands.

“Yes,” I said cautiously. “Do I know you?”

He swallowed, his adam’s apple bobbing as though working up his courage.

“It’s Hudson. Hudson Randle.”

I could hardly believe my eyes. Hudson Randle. My Hudson Randle.

The high school sweetheart I remembered was going places. He was the captain of the football team, the Vice President of our student council, not to mention nearly the most popular guy in school at the time. It was all coming back to me in a flash. His big brown eyes, strong and chiseled jawline, gorgeous face, and a drop-dead smile that would knock the socks of any girl. His lips were full and so damn kissable. He was all Italian, dark skin and all. There had even been rumors that his father was a big wig in the Mob. This was not the beautiful boy that I remembered.

I took a sharp breath. “Hudson? I hardly recognized you.”

His smile was uneasy and I felt ashamed for reasons I couldn’t understand. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Never in a million years expected to see you here, of all places.”

“Yes, yes, it has been. A really long time. How have you—I mean, are you okay, out here like this?”

I was tempted to offer him the couch in my hotel room on the spot. It was a suite and plenty big enough. Was he really homeless? Sleeping on the streets? How had this happened?

It was obvious that he had seen his fair share of life. Looking closer I could see the traces of who he once was. But now there was experience in his eyes. They were haunted. Beautiful. Without thinking, I turned the camera on him. He held his arms up, shielding his face. Horrified with myself, I promptly put the camera back down.

“Sorry, sorry, it’s just. Your eyes, I…” I stammered. I rubbed the back of my neck, nodding toward the camera. “I’ve become a bit of a shutterbug. Not too glamorous, but it pays the bills.”

I hoped that I didn’t sound like I was bragging about having a job since it clearly looked like he didn’t and hadn’t in quite some time. I hardly knew what I was saying, but seeing him like this had thrown me off. Nothing made sense.

“Sorry, I’m rambling,” I said. “But really, are you...are you ok? Do you need a place to stay?”

“I’m fine. Really, Lexi. Thank you.” He pushed the twenty back into my palm. “It was nice seeing you.”

I made a noise to protest, but before I could say anything else he dashed across the street, shrinking into the shadows between buildings, leaving me standing on the sidewalk completely dumbfounded.

What the hell just happened?

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