What Comes Next

The ceiling was cracked. It was dominated by a spider web of fissures, some quite narrow, others a bit wider, some the length of her fingers, others as long as her arm. Her gaze followed the thin trails of destruction that spread above her.

Its pale yellow epicenter was directly over the bed where she had collapsed three hours ago, and the peeling splinters fanned out from there. She wondered when the ceiling would have last been painted. Twenty years or more, definitely. She adjusted her scope to take in the entire fresco at once, feeling as though she could fall up and into it.

She had booked this place online two nights earlier. Small, “boutique,” overlooking a garden, eighteenth arrondissement. Expensive, hushed.

Here she was. She had assumed that by now, weeks later, the panicked, crawling tightness that had entered her chest and her limbs would have given way to something else. Something heavier, maybe, in her bones. A weight that would steady her and force her forward. But the seismic shift that happened within her as the cop told the story still risked toppling her at any moment.

They’d been running late. Bill had called as they were leaving campus, saying he and Sarah would still be home well before midnight. It wasn’t snowing that much. They’d bought fresh doughnuts for the drive from that place near the dorm, and they’d keep one for her to have at breakfast tomorrow. She’d fallen asleep reading but the doorbell woke her. Then this stranger was in her doorway, talking to her slowly and deliberately, letting in the cold.

All the light and the air in the hallway was drawn into a tunnel before her and she fell in, her brain rushing ahead, thrashing and clawing at his words, shoving them away. Her body tightened and pitched forward, as if trying to stop someone from falling off a ledge. On her hands and knees, she’d stared into the rug in the front hall, its colours and its pattern. Bill had bought it during a work trip to the Middle East. He’d come back early because he missed her. The officer put his arm around her shoulders as she screamed into its blue and red flowers.

Now the lines on the hotel room ceiling had become progressively darker as the late-afternoon sun crept into the room. Her stomach growled. She had eaten next to nothing on the flight.

The three weeks after Officer Martin came to the door were a fog, with voices and images appearing and leaving, in and out. Her sister, next to her, taking charge. Everyone saying the wrong thing because there is no right thing, looking at her with both pity and dread: this is what someone looks like when they’ve lost everything. When they might as well be dead, too. People brought food, told warm stories about Bill and Sarah, cleaned her house, gave her advice, told her “whatever you need.” She hated every last one of them.

Finally, the rites were done with and she was left mostly alone. Her sister stayed on, prescribed more anti-anxiety meds, which she didn’t take, and sleeping pills, which she did. All she had wanted was drugged slumber, the kind that covers you in a thick, dark blanket and lets nothing in. But Bill and Sarah still found their way under the blanket with her, and sleep was no longer a refuge.

So, she left. She and Bill had planned to retire in five years, and had started looking into the cost of renting villas in various warm European towns. A fun thing to plan over weekend breakfasts. Now those savings, plus life insurance, the university fund and what Simon, the hyper real estate agent, promised would be almost a million dollars “clear!” for their house, could bankroll a getaway.

The duvet beneath her was fluffy but the mattress was firm. Really nice. She hadwritten a note to her sister, telling her she had no intention of killing herself and she was pretty sure that was true. Tonight she’d walk to a restaurant, eat too much and, with any luck, get a good night’s sleep.

She knew what was supposed to come next: Slow, plodding recovery. Therapy. Eventually, in a year or so, new hobbies, new friends, a place on the high shelf where fragile and useless things perch, to be admired but never touched. People needed her to soldier on, to be an example. She was a leader, after all, someone people aspired to be like, a woman who had her shit together. Now, she was expected to be stoic and make the best of it so everyone could go back to their lives and feel good about having been there for her. All she had to do was follow the dance steps laid out before her. Left, right. One, two.

Yet the idea of folding herself into the tragic-widow narrative brought with it a separate anger that had hardened into an undefined resolve. They had been special together, the three of them. They had plans. Bill and Sarah deserved more, and so did she.

She sat up on the bed and hugged her knees to her chest. Nice room. Old-world, charming. She was alone here. No one knew her. She was away. She had no doubt coming here was right.

Her phone trilled. She grabbed it from the nightstand and saw that it was a text from Craig: “Hello Beth. Hope you’re taking good care. We’re all thinking of you. When you get the chance, call to let me know what your plan is for returning. No rush! You know what HR is like. I just need to tell them something :)”

She leaned back on the pillows and exhaled slowly toward the ceiling cracks. Then she started typing.

“Hi Simon. I’ve given it some thought. Let’s list the house! My sister will be in touch soon re: details.”

She gave the ceiling a conspiratorial grin and let the phone slip out of her fingers.

She rose from the bed and walked over to the wall mirror, a gaudy affair ringed with brass curlicues. She brushed her hair, put on some lipstick. She grabbed her purse from the armchair and slipped on her shoes.

One last look at her face in the mirror. There you are. Then out the door.