Carol

“I just didn’t want to leave a mess, you understand,” she said. She felt the silence around her heavy and pregnant, almost teeming. No one spoke for a few seconds. She brushed a lock of blonde hair behind her ear. Her bracelet tinkled musically.

Greg looked directly at her. His expression was warm and compassionate. He nodded sympathetically. “That’s a perfectly natural concern,” he said.

“A gun just seemed… too brutal,” she continued. She cleared her throat. “So… Violent. I didn’t want to leave a mess. For my children to find, I mean.”

“You know it doesn’t have to be this way,” Greg replied. “Right, everyone?”

Grunts of assent from the men and women assembled.

“You don’t have to reach for that as a way out. And that’s why we’re here. That is why you’re here with us, is to work through this. There are better ways to fix this problem, Carol, and we can and we want to help you. Anyone, feel free to chime in at any time, what could we say to Carol. What could she do?”

A few furtive glances around the room as they tried to figure out who would speak first. Carol contemplated her hands, remembering how heavy the gun felt in them the previous night, and how much they shook after she put it back down. She had been unable to pull the trigger.

“Pills are good if you have enough, or can afford them,” said one mousy woman at Carol’s immediate left. “But they can be tricky, as lethal dosages aren’t always easy to gauge, and some of them put you into convulsions, like, foamy mouth and all that.”

“You could always drown yourself,” said a muscle-bound and gray-haired man. “No mess there, you just disappear, depending.”

“Oh hell no,” said the woman next to him. “I am not even trying to go there, shit. I don’t want some asshole government motherfucker to list me as missing and have all them penalties go to my kids.”

“Well it’s a peaceful way to go, I’ve heard,” the man offered in retort, arms crossed. “They say that your mind goes all peaceful just before you die.”

“Yeah, who?” the woman challenged. “Because nobody who been there come back to tell it, have they? You want a quick way to go? You need a gun. You need something that’ll do the work for you. Plus, you won’t be worrying about no mess after. Just pull the trigger and it’s all over, you won’t even feel it if it’s in the brain.”

“I agree,” said a young-looking man. He was much younger than the rest of them, and by a good ten years, it seemed. But he was wan and harried-looking. “The actual physical effort required on your part is very small; the psychological effort is consequentially less. You don’t have to, like, contemplate stepping off a bridge or will yourself to walk deeper into water or anything. Just a squeeze and then physics takes care of the rest.”

“This is good,” Greg said with an encouraging smile. His brown eyes were alive and warm; he had what Carol thought of as laughing eyes. A laughing mouth. “This is really good! Carol, what are your thoughts?”

“Well, I… I just don’t know,” she said. “I suppose I like the pills idea, it seems the most peaceful. I would prefer to have them find me peaceful. I don’t much care for the idea of being fished out of a river. And she’s right, unkind tongues would probably still find a way to call it an accident, and then it’d all be for nothing.”

“I can understand that. But this is a great start. But Carol, do you know which medication might be best?”
 “I don’t know, I suppose any manner of sleeping pill would work out, wouldn’t it?” Carol ventured,

“No,” the mousy woman said. “Not just any would. Some are enough to put you in a coma, but they won’t kill you. And depending on your insurance, you can’t get them. I know I’ve been trying to get my hands on some, but the shortages… It’s not the easiest way to do it. Plus, no one’s trying to make it easy, because the government makes so much off of debt transferal.”

“Wait, why wouldn’t a coma be ok? Couldn’t they just unplug you then?” asked the young one.

“No. The whole point is that you eliminate yourself. If you have to have someone unplug you it wouldn’t be the same; then your family gets billed for the cost. If you do it yourself your family gets the tax break.”

“I just wish they’d put the age another ten years out,” said another ruefully. “Or five years.”

“What, till sixty? Ha. Good luck with that.” This from the scowling smoker on Carol’s other side.

“I know. I mean, I voted him in, so this is what we get. But I dunno. I guess I just wish that it wasn’t so sudden.”

Carol shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t think it’s a bad idea, to put it off,” she said. “So hard thing to get your head around. Best not to think about it too much, which is my problem. My whole life I’ve never been given to obsessing about anything — getting married, having kids, it was all so simple. But I suddenly can’t help myself.”

“It’s what we call inertia viva: the force that compels you to keep living only because that’s what you’re used to. It’s a habit, at this point, to keep living,” Greg explained. “And it’s a hard habit to break, but we all have to, and we all will.”

“Oh, I know, I’ve read all of the articles and all that nonsense,” she said. “What I mean to say is that it’s just… I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

“It’s ok, Carol,” Greg offered. “We’re here to help you get there. Don’t worry. I’m looking around this room at all of you and I see a group of people who know what they have to do, they are able to face up to it, and they want to do right. That is the first step in the right direction, people, it really is. I cannot tell you how many people run from themselves, who refuse to face up to the facts, and cannot imagine that the earth might keep turning without them. But the opposite is true: it can only keep on turning if they’re gone. The fact that you’re all here is a testament to how strong you really are.”

He paused, making eye contact with each person around the circle, then concluded.

“I’ll see you all here next Thursday. And I want to take the last moments here, as always, to remember our friends who’ve successfully retired — we had Stephen finally succeed, carbon monoxide from the car he’d restored, like he’d planned, last night. We also had Kris retire via hanging. Let’s all take a moment of silence to wish their families well, to reflect on their strength, and thank them for their selflessness.”

The silence was short, broken when someone coughed. Greg stood.

“Thank you so much for coming. Coffee and donuts on the way out if you’re still feeling hungry.”

Some left quickly, though most of the group hung back to chat. Carol gathered her purse up and adjusted her robin’s egg blue cardigan around her shoulders. She made her way for the exit, making a big show of turning down offers for coffee and donuts. Children needed help with homework and schedules had to be coordinated for the next round of playdates, she begged off, and promised she’d come for the next meeting.

She sat stolidly in her car for five silent minutes, then ten. She focused intently on her breathing. She felt panic rising in her gorge, as delicate and impeding as an orgasm. It needed only the slightest increase in focus or attention before it broke over her like a cloudburst. It tore through her with gale force, making her heave great sobs into the steering wheel of her cream-white Mercedes. This somehow activated the voice function of the car, which inquired cheerfully if she’d repeat that again.

Carol obliged. She cried harder, and clung onto the steering wheel so hard she felt a nail begin to shear off the end of her finger. The pain was like a bright beacon in fog, a keen little singing sting that demanded attention, and she pressed her fingertip even harder into the leather of the wheel. When she pulled her hands away and fumbled for a napkin, she noticed blood in the grooves of her nail bed already drying.

Her phone was ringing. She picked it up and answered calmly. With her uninjured hand she dabbed away tears from the corners of her eyes, taking care not to smear her mascara. It would need a touch-up.

“Yes, dear,” she said. “Yes. I’m on my way back already. It was fine, not terribly helpful, no. But I think it’s a good idea to come, just like you said. I do, really. All right. Yes. I’ll see you back at home.”

She hung up and started the car. It hummed slightly, almost imperceptibly, and glided noiselessly out of the parking lot. She loved her car dearly; she supposed she would miss it a lot. The words most of all flashed across her mind, illicit and neon, and she blushed for shame. Miss her car most of all. The very though made her feel worse.

All along the roadside were billboards, great big horrible billboards that exhorted every citizen to save every last scrap of anything, and to live as mindfully as possible. One egg wasted is 55 gallons of water down the drain. Life expectancy is only an expectation if you’ve earned it. Fight to 50! Live for now so someone else has a tomorrow. Your future is now. Earn the future by living for now. Carol hated the signs not because of their messages or the horrible things they were symptoms of, but simply for the sheer number of them. Her drive home from town used to be a lot less cluttered by the stark black and yellow signs, but now the road seemed almost fenced in by blazing slogans, all written out in shouting capital letters. It made you feel breathless just reading them. She felt like she could handle them if they just weren’t so unsightly.

And later, when she got home, she noted with displeasure that there was a new one right at the entrance to her gated community. This one said, Only today is yours! Tomorrow belongs to the future!

She spent a short amount of time reapplying makeup in the mirror before she turned off the Mercedes and went inside to face her husband and children. They hadn’t taken the birthday decorations down yet. The banners still hung inside the foyer; there was still wrapping paper in the trash.

She removed her shoes immediately so no one would hear her. Somewhere in the bowels of the house she heard Martin banging on something, and Calista’s room had music blaring, as usual. She stood stock still as her son Matthew walked by her on his phone, completely unaware that his mother had returned home. She didn’t even breathe, didn’t dare move an inch as he passed by. When he had gone, she exhaled, feeling ridiculous.

The house was dark for the most part. Cold, too. Carol crept silently up the wide, empty staircase. The lights in the foyer were off, and upstairs the only sign of life was the sound of bass pumping from through Calista’s door. The long, high-ceilinged hallway was normally cluttered with some of the kids’ things, bookbags, dirty laundry, however tonight it was completely free of anything whatsoever. She made no noise as she walked slowly, and only when she had firmly closed hers and Martin’s door behind her did she finally allow herself to exhale fully.

She drew a bath for herself and dropped in a measure of bath salts. The water grew warm and fragrant with citrus and oils. She slid in wincing, slightly scalded. She did not add cold water, deciding instead to sit and boil. It felt good.

She laid her head back against the cold tile, but the light overhead was too bright for her. She saw only red if she closed her eyes. Grumbling, she got out of the bath, wrapped herself in a towel, and lit several candles. Irritated and cold, she sank back into the water after turning the light off, and immediately felt so much better. She sighed and smiled in spite of herself.

She slid down a bit in the tub. The water invaded her ears. She moved further down, hearing nothing but the pump of her own heart, the clink of her ring against the tub. She moved further down and felt the water close over her. She held her breath. The heat relaxed her.

She kept her head under. She pinched her nose shut with finger and thumb. She exhaled bubbles out of her mouth and then closed it again.

She held her breath as long as she could. And then longer still. She held her breath until she was certain she was going to drown, certain she couldn’t for one second longer — and then, some reflex, the evolutionary fail-safe kicked in and she broke through the surface, gasping. Inertia viva had won again.

She lost track of time sitting in her hot bath, bathed in candlelight. She had just turned 48, and while the party had been the usual nice dinner with family kind of affair, she felt the entire time like she might scream at any second. She was hurt that they hadn’t taken down the birthday decorations. That was just thoughtless.

“Carol?” came a call. “Carol, you here?”

“In here,” she said with a sigh.

Martin entered. “I was looking for you. How was it?”

“Fine,” she replied.

“Did you make any progress?”

“No.”

“What’s the matter, honey?” he pried.

“I’m tired, is all.”

“You’re upset.”

“Of course I am,” she said. “But that’s nothing new.”

“Well sure,” Martin shrugged. “I mean, sure, I understand that. But this is why you’re going to the meetings, is so that you can get to a place where you feel better about it.”

“I don’t feel better about it.”

“Aw, come on honey. I know it’s hard. But it’s what we all have to do. I’ll be there myself in five years.”

“Don’t,” she said.

“Everyone will have to, you know. Well, not the ones who die from the plague or who get shot, but the normal ones. They’ll all have to.”

Carol closed her eyes tight.

“You could have at least taken down the birthday decorations,” she finally managed.

“I just did,” Martin said ruefully. “I’m sorry. I forgot. I got to fixing that regulator in the wall, and time got away from me. I thought I’d have had it done in time.”

“You could’ve made Matthew. Or Callista.”

“You know how they are. They’re impossible to deal with,” Martin replied.

Carol didn’t speak for a long time. Martin stayed stood at the doorway. The candlelight flickered over his face, making him seem pockmarked and impossibly old.

“Do you want me to leave you alone?” he asked after a while. She couldn’t quite tell what the expression on his face was. Was it sadness? Anger?

“Yes, do that,” she said in a clipped tone. “I’m going to stay here awhile longer.”

“All right,” he said. He turned. Then turned back: “Carol, I love you. You know that, right?”

“That’s kind of you to say, Martin,” she replied tonelessly. He shut the door behind himself.

The group had discussed how this would happen, the distancing before death. Perfectly natural, Greg had said, for spouses to become almost strangers to one another, especially if there was a large gap in age. Carol was only three years older than Martin, but that was a full three years more time he would have with the children, three more years he’d have to live and work and enjoy himself before he reached the legal age of retirement.

It had all swept over them like a bad dream, years and years back. North Korea bombed the western United States, sparking the war everyone had feared. Refugees fled the west and headed east. Unimaginable suffering and deprivation were everywhere, and in a stroke of brilliance (or so the Party said) the newly re-elected President Knowles devised a solution: All citizens at the age of fifty were to take their own lives, to spare the resources for everyone else, and to save the younger generations the burden of caring for the old. Citizens who refused were assessed mammoth tax penalties; citizens who did die at age 50 but who didn’t kill themselves had all of their remaining debts transferred to their families as a way to prevent what the authorities called “compassionate killing.” Murder, it turned out, was still firmly taboo, while suicide became compulsory.

Life expectancy extensions were possible and granted for extenuating circumstances; sometimes (but rarely) for grandparents who were forced to raise grandchildren, or for those with great talents or sorely needed skills. Carol and many others noted with bitterness how most of the extensions seemed to land in the laps of politicians and celebrities.

Carol and Martin had in fact banked on such an exception, and had it on good authority that they were going to get theirs. The word had come down only two days before Carol’s birthday, the official rejection: “Regret to inform that current resource constraints prohibit this office from granting an extension of life for either Martin James Allen or Carol Gardener Allen. “

The birthday dinner went ahead as planned, and no one except she and Martin were the wiser. She tasted nothing she ate. The children were even less aloof than normal; they had picked up on her sense of expectancy. Her optimism about receiving the extension had given her a bit of a pep in her step.

She had not expected the full rejection. She knew that Martin had asked for fifteen years on account of his work, and as his spouse she was entitled to it as well. Fifteen would’ve been generous indeed (the longest reprieve was thirty years, granted to President Knowles and his wife) and after that were twenties and teens handed out to government officials, the brightest legal and medical minds, and the odd writer or two.

Carol felt the writers were somehow more of a slap in the face than the government officials; how could you ever objectively rate a writer’s contribution to society, when everything was so dependent on taste? She’d read the latest novel from Branzen, and thought it was utter garbage, overweening and lifeless. How the hell was he granted an extra fifteen years to sit around and adjust those heavy-framed glasses he wore while speaking to college students, and she couldn’t even get an extra day, couldn’t even get an hour?

Her body didn’t feel old. She had no aches and pains, no evidence of the onset of age. She remembered coming across an old magazine in the community center after a meeting with Greg and the group, some stupid fashion magazine, and the cover boldly declared, “50 is the new 30!” The gloss had vanished in the many years it had lived in the community center; it didn’t reflect light anymore. The paper was soft and weathered, almost like a paper towel.

She got into bed next to Martin, her body hot beneath the sheets. She felt the extra three years in him almost as if they were a physical presence, another body in the bed, like some secret woman he’d hidden from her all these years. He moved to give her a kiss on the cheek but she retreated from him, and rolled onto her side, turning her back on him. He didn’t try to touch her again.

“Dignity is what we strive for,” Greg had said at her first meeting. “Dignity through choice, dignity through agency, and dignity through service. You’re here because you’re going to take control, you’re going to give back to future generations, and you’re going to do it with grace.”

She felt a great deal of anger while she was at the meetings. She rolled her eyes a lot at the things others said, but she kept going back.

She upped her attendance to twice a week when a government reminder came in the mail, saying that her retirement date was approaching, and she still hadn’t submitted a plan for official records.

The Census Bureau required citizens supply them with information regarding how they were going to kill themselves, any outstanding debts left unpaid, assets and properties to be distributed to next of kin, and compiled the data in what everyone called the Domesday Book. Carol knew all about it because Martin was one of the main designers of the program. She felt as if it was monstrous to ask that information of people before their time; she hadn’t settled on a method yet, and since she couldn’t quite stomach the thought of a gunshot, she was between pills and hanging.

On top of that, the insurance company hadn’t gotten back to them on whether or not secobarbital or pentobarbital would be covered. And given the shortages, she wasn’t optimistic; the amount of money it’d take to purchase lethal doses could put Callista and Matthew into debt, and she didn’t want that to happen. No one at the IRS could answer her questions, either. She yearned for an accident to make the decision for her. She wished someone would just miss a stoplight and drive through her. But the cars were too well designed, and no one got into wrecks anymore.

At the group meetings, Greg spoke for a long time about finding the proper way to go, about finding what felt right for you. Carol had sat in breakout session after breakout session, talking over with the others how they felt someone like them should die.

“Ah, I’d wanna go after a round or two of some good sex with my wife, and a martini,” said one corpulent banker. Carol rolled her eyes. She couldn’t even summon up the semblance of mortification when he called her on it.

“All I need is my bible,” piped up another. “Bible and a syringe of some good smack. That’s how I want them to find me.”

“I would want my family all around me,” said a woman who had appeared on a popular baking show. “Make it like a party.”

“Could you bake me a pie with poison in it?” asked the banker. He was irritatingly chummy with everyone.

“No,” she said with a laugh, “You know better than that! People would talk, and I’d be accused of murder!”

The next meeting was more of the same. Carol asked if they could get help in doing the IRS and census forms. Greg promised that he’d bring someone in from the church to help.

Months went by and new faces joined, while others stopped coming. No one asked about the ones who stopped. Greg would make announcements at the beginning of each meeting if one of their number had successfully retired. Some just dropped out; Greg continued to close each meeting by saying a few words about the successfully retired, and how he hoped the others would return before the end, and that he wished them the best on their journey.

Carol was intensely envious of the ones who stopped coming. Not the drop-outs; but the retirees. All was done for them. No more forms, no more providing documents that illustrated both the intention and the means of suicide, the questionnaires, the collating of all debts, assets, and next of kin. She felt the utter indignity of it all was amplified by the fact that radiation sickness was rumored to be coming soon, and everyone anticipated even more shortages.

There were long lines at the grocery stores, people grumbled at prices, and Carol noticed more and more men and women dressed in rags on the sides of the road. Not even within the city limits — these were men and women who seemed to have dragged themselves out of wilderness, out of some deserted subdivision, only to lie supine by the interstate. They never crawled out onto the road, though. She could never figure out why.

Martin was coming home later and later each night, and the children were even more diffident than usual. No matter what she said, she could only ever seem to merit one earbud plucked out, the music tinny and old-sounding to her. The earbuds went back in usually after a sentence was complete. The children went about their business as normal. Death, for them, was still far off.

Martin had managed to secure them medication for the radiation sickness, though, which was important. (Or so he said.) Carol did not share this with the group. A few of them were starting to show signs of it. Strong winds blowing west to east were bringing the radiation with them, but Carol felt fine. She only took her medication when she felt like it — it seemed pointless to do so when she would have to retire in a year anyway.

She had at least decided how she would do it. She wanted pentobarbital. She wanted to do it the way someone who mattered would die, the way someone with insurance would die. Someone with a cream-white Mercedes that made no noise as it drove around and had formed itself to her would die this way, not some awful gunshot or bruised-throat hanging. Martin promised he’d do whatever he could for her.

But the wait was killing her, as surely as the radiation sickness might. As months passed, more people fell ill. Carol came closer to another birthday, and she felt the first glimmer of illness in herself. She began to take her medicine dutifully, not fully understanding why.

Letters piled up from the insurance company, rejections and resubmission requests for the pentobarbital. Martin stayed true to his word and had been trying over and over to push the application through. It was always some bureaucratic hitch that sent them back to square one; and as winter melted into spring, and Carol’s fiftieth loomed ever closer, she began to panic.

She’d put down pentobarbital as the method of suicide, and then carbon monoxide poisoning as a second means, and gunshot as a third. She wasn’t sure what the penalties might be for straying from the plan. Her eyes started to blur whenever she started reading the pamphlets.

Her birthday came and went and she entered into her final twelve months. The notices from the Census Bureau arrived more frequently, and read like software license agreements. Official Notice to Submit Form 7501 no less than six months before your anticipated date of elimination. If you have submitted this form already, you may ignore this letter. If you believe you are receiving this letter by mistake, please turn to page 13A, and sign box 17.

Carol always ignored the letters from Census. It occurred to her late one night that maybe there was something in there, buried in the soft recycled paper that government forms used, something that could take everything away from the children because she’d filed something incorrectly. But she couldn’t seem to care, and anyway, Martin had hired a man to look over the forms, so it was out of her hands. Like everything else.

The final rejection notice came six weeks before her fiftieth. She wept bitterly when she read the letter. A human had written it, she thought, as it lacked the mechanical impersonality of most other communications she’d received. I’m so sorry to inform you that your application for pentobarbital has been rejected due to limited supply. You may appeal this decision in writing or by calling the number below within ninety days of receipt of this notification. Sincerely, Nancy Edwards. She did not leave her bed for three days after. Martin slept on the couch.

Calista and Matthew came to talk with her on the third day.

“Mom,” Calista, the elder, started. “Get out of bed, please. We want to see you.”

“It’s all right, I’m just going to sleep a little more,” Carol said softly, sitting up a bit, squinting against the light.

“No,” she continued. “Mom. You need to get out of bed.”

“I don’t,” Carol replied firmly. No trace now of sleep in her voice.

“Come on, Mom,” Matthew pleaded. “We just want to talk to you.”

“Then we’ll talk here. What is it?”

“Dad said that there was something in the filing that needed your signature. Something that was urgent. He needed to go over something with you.”

“What is it?”

“It’s some conflict with the inheritances. We just want to go over that one thing. But that’s not why we’re here, exactly. We want to see you. We love you.” Matthew’s voice possessed a plaintive note that wounded her. He wasn’t lying when he said he loved her; she knew that deep in her bones.

Carol sat up fully in bed. She felt her throat closing in anger. Her heart hurt. She felt as though something heavy was sliding out of the way only to have something larger and heavier fall into its place.

“I’ll be down in a bit,” she said at last, when she could manage to speak. “Give me a few minutes, I’m going shower. Then I’ll be down.”

“Thanks, mom,” Calista said, kissing her. The children left.

Carol rose slowly. She showered, luxuriating in the feeling of the warm water on her dry skin. She sat at her makeup table and put on powder, eyeliner, rouge, mascara. She did her hair until she recognized herself again. And then went downstairs.

Martin and the children were sitting at the dining room table, an orderly stack of papers in front of them. Carol joined them. From the outside, it looked like the four of them were going over something extraordinarily complicated. The children made big shows of pointing to various places on different pages, and gesticulated as they spoke. They seemed animated and passionate.

Carol, however, looked like a sleepwalker. She signed her name where they pointed, and nodded her head absently as she listened to them. She placed her hand lightly on her husband’s arm, and then removed it. He stared at her intently as she read the pages in front of them, and she did not return his gaze.

It was all over in under an hour. Carol stood up and gave each one a kiss on the forehead before going back upstairs. She closed the door to her room behind her and went into the bathroom to stare at herself in the mirror.

Fifty. It was the new thirty once, she thought dejectedly. She’d just signed away her car, her possessions, and corrected a few line items of the will with her children, and listened to them as they laid out their concerns. She couldn’t recognize herself in the mirror, couldn’t recognize her family around her, which was tremendously frightening. Who were the two downstairs who had carved up her possessions so efficiently? Who was the man who sat there and let them do it?

She noticed the quality of her skin in the mirror. It was starting to look old. Her eyes were heavy-looking. The rouge seemed garish. Had she always looked so unconvincing? She scrubbed her face. She wiped every last trace of makeup from her skin until she was finally alone with herself.

Her silent reflection looked so deflated. She hated to feel so powerless. She felt the urge to scream, but didn’t. Instead, she smashed the mirror with her hand. It shattered with a disappointing crunch, not pretty and glassy like she’d hoped. She felt a sensation of heat, then a stinging pain in her hand and wrist, and watched as a steady rivulet of blood sprang up from each cut and ran down her arm. It dripped into the sink in brilliant, vivid color. She felt more surprise than pain.

She took a shard of broken glass out of one of the cuts. Blood pulsed out behind. She laughed, in spite of herself, and with her other hand, struck the mirror again. Another searing pain, another crunch, and soon the sink was a mess of broken glass and blood.

She began to feel dizzy. She sat down heavily on the floor, back against the wall, head swimming. She heard her phone ringing as if from miles away on the countertop. Not knowing what else to do, she picked it up.

“Hello?”

“Yes, hello, this is Nancy Edwards calling from Mahler Insurance. I wanted to reach out to let you know we’ve had a last minute cancellation. We have the amount of pentobarbital you had requested, and can approve it for you! I wanted to call as soon as I could.”

“You have… The drug. That will kill me.” She said this with cotton-dry lips.

“Yes. I can get that pushed through for you. Shall I?”

“You have it. Finally have it. I don’t… I don’t think I need it.” Carol fought for words.

“Oh. You don’t need it anymore? Hello? Mrs. Allen, are you there?”

“No, no more,” Carol replied. “Don’t need it anymore. I just didn’t want to leave a mess.”

“That’s good,” Nancy said, after a pause. “Well, I’m sorry we couldn’t help you with that. But is there anything else I can assist you with today?”

“No.”

“All right. Well thank you for your time, and you have a good weekend.”

“Thank you, Nancy. I just didn’t want to leave a mess, you understand.”

Carol hung up the phone. She released it from her bloodied hand, where it clattered dully on the floor. She thought she could hear footsteps in the hallway, and the bedroom door open. Or did it? There was a rushing sound in her ears.

Mom, wake up. What are you doing? Hands touched her shoulder, her face, her arms. Hands smoothed her hair away and off her forehead.

“Wake up,” someone said.

Carol smiled and shut her eyes, for what she dearly hoped was the last time.