Gray swirled around her. Dying! She had to get out of here, but how? There was no escape, nowhere to go. Was this it? Was this how it was going to end?
The gray grew dark and gloomy. Suffocating. She was scared. It wasn’t time! Not yet. Not yet. Not…
And then all was still, and she felt herself starting to ascend. But to where? Would she return home, or would she end up in some vast ether of nothingness? She was in uncharted territory, incomplete. So many questions, so many unknowns. If she had a body she’d be trembling.
In hindsight it had been a mistake to falsify Claire’s memory. She’d been only trying to help though, to try and protect her. Having suffered loss herself she didn’t want Claire to deal with the pain.
And look where it got you, she told herself again for the—how many times? Too many. Trapped. Unable to leave.
That was neither here nor there now. It was done and she would suffer the consequences. She just hoped her judgment all those years ago wouldn’t seal the fate of billions. If you don’t return with me life as we know it will cease to exist, he’d said. She wondered, more now than ever, if that were true? Could her selfishness really have impacted so many?
Not by choice, she told herself. Your hands were tied.
Liar, another voice said. You were scared.
She recognized that it, too, was her voice, though more mature and knowledgeable with age.
There was nothing she could do but wait to see what would happen.
As she rose she felt Claire slip away. Poor Claire. It was never supposed to be like this. I’m so sorry, Claire.
She was ready for the inevitable, scared yet anxious, wondering what would happen.
In a faraway place she heard a tiny voice. She sought it out, searching the blackness. Everything echoed here. Where was it coming from?
She focused and felt a glimmer, like a twinkle from a distant star.
There! Could this be the answer? Would this buy her time?
She swam to it hoping—no, praying—that this would work. She needed just a little more time to find him. She needed him to come back, to make her whole.
She was almost to the glimmer, the voice growing in distress. It sounded like…
A thought occurred to her. Would she be damning her the same way she’d damned Claire? Did she want to take that chance?
She floated toward the light—toward the voice—and hoped.
* * *
The first thing she heard was the slow rhythmic sounds of a heart rate monitor. Must have dozed off during one of my shows again, Claire thought. Grey’s Anatomy? Maybe one of the old ones: ER or Chicago Hope? She struggled to open her eyes, the tired lids fighting, wanting to stay closed. A brightness pierced the thin opening and she pinched her eyes closed. What the hell? Why so bright? Again she tried, slower, compensating for the light, waiting for the brain splitting brightness to ease.
Her surroundings came into focus and Claire saw she wasn’t in her living room. Murray was on the television hanging from the wall, the guests thankfully muted. Disinfectant seeped into her nostrils. Claire looked down and saw she was in a bed covered by white sheets. An IV drip fed a clear fluid into her arm. Next to her, sleeping in a chair, was her daughter Emily.
She was in the hospital and having a sense of deja vu. Claire pushed herself up with a grunt. How long had she been here? Her body ached, every muscle throbbing in anger. The last thing she remembered was drinking, something that had become a ritual pretty much every night as of late. It was the only way to help her sleep, to dull the abandonment. Why the memory of her husband running off had resurfaced was a mystery, but it had with a vengeance.
“Mom?” Emily stared at her with radiant blue eyes.
Just like her father’s.
“What are you doing here?” Claire rasped. Her throat was raw and on fire.
“You don’t remember?” Emily asked, concerned.
“If I did I wouldn’t be asking.” Claire massaged her throat. “Can I have some water?”
“Sure.” Emily stood and took an empty Styrofoam cup with a straw to the sink and filled it, keeping an ever watchful eye on her mother.
Emily’s brow furrowed. “What?”
“Staring. I don’t need to be scrutinized.”
Emily returned to her mother, handing her the cup. Claire pinched the straw between her lips and sipped at the water, every swallow burning. Claire could tell Emily was holding back, that she wanted to lash out at her.
“How do you feel?” asked Emily.
“Hell. What do you think?” She tried to clear the rawness in her throat. “What happened?”
Tears sprang to the corner of Emily’s eyes. “I found you… dead.”
“Don’t be so dramatic.”
Emily lost it. “Don’t be so dramatic? You died! Do you know how scared I was? If I hadn’t found you when I did—” She looked incredulous and hurt.
“I was so scared. What would I do if you died?”
Unsure how to respond Claire lifted her arms and Emily fell into them. “I’m alright, sweetie. I’m alright.”
“Why, mom? Why?” Emily sobbed into her mother. But Claire didn’t respond. Instead, she hugged her daughter, comforting her as she had when she was a child, stroking her hair. After a time Emily’s crying subsided and she pulled away, wiping away the tears with the back of her hand. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. So, what do I need to do to get out of here?”
“Let me go talk to the nurse.”
Emily returned a few minutes later with a nurse in tow. She looked at the readings on the monitors and asked, “How are you feeling?”
“When can I leave?”
“The doctor will be in in a little bit to evaluate you.”
“That’s not an answer,” Claire said with a hint of annoyance.
The nurse ignored it. “You can discuss that with him. Can I get you anything?”
“No. I’m fine.”
The nurse gave a false pleasant smile and walked away.
Claire looked at Emily. “That wasn’t helpful.”
“Did you think they’d just let you leave because you asked?”
“Wishful thinking more like it.”
“Same thing.” Claire sipped her water and it went down a little easier.
“Well, now that you’re up I’m going to go home. The place needs to be cleaned up. But I’ll be back in a little bit, okay?”
“It’s really not neccess—”
“Yes. It is. I’ll be back soon,” Emily said and leaned in. There was something in her eyes, something Claire didn’t recognize. It was defiant and daring, and it took her aback. It was a look she’d never seen in Emily, as if a stranger was hiding behind those eyes and it scared her.
“I love you,” she whispered and wrapped her arms around her. The hug was warm, familiar, and strange.