It All Falls Apart
As much as she didn't want to, Wil ended up spending the night at the hospital with her mother, taking only a brief trip home to change out of her dress. Being the only family nearby, the hospital had allowed both of them to sleep in his room, and Wil tried to curl up in the uncomfortable chair in the corner while her mother slept on the fold out couch. When she had come back from meeting with the doctor, she had been wracked with guilt; his tests had come back very healthy, meaning the heart attack was likely due to some kind of stress or shock.
Patricia had taken that personally, blaming herself for letting him make such a long trip.
Morning came, bringing with it a back ache and a crick in Wil's neck. She left her mother sleeping and ventured down to the cafeteria to stretch her back out. When she got back to the room, she was carrying a tray loaded with pastries and two steaming syrofoam cups of coffee.
"Oh, there you are honey," her mother greeted her as she set the tray down. Taking a cup, Wil went to sit on the couch that her mother had folded back into place. "Have you seen this?" Patricia grabbed her own cup, gesturing to the screen on the wall. An anchorman spoke in one box, the other showing a wide shot of a University building with police lines set up around the parking lot. "Apparently there was some kind of animal attack last night; two young men have gone missing, with only torn clothing and a supposedly a mess of blood left behind. I had no idea there was an animal problem at Dartmouth."
Wil leaned forward, craning her neck to see the screen. She cradled her coffee between both hands and frowned. "I know that place," she said, and her mother looked at her sharply. Wil was too busy staring at the screen to take notice. Rising to her feet, she crossed the room and picked up the remote, turning the volume up. Unfortunately, as she did so, the newscast cut to a commercial, and with a curse she turned it down again.
"You don't have classes there, do you Willa?" Patricia asked. Wil shook her head.
"No, but a roommate does…did," Wil said, still standing. She stared at the screen almost in disbelief. What were the chances that there would be an attack in the same parking lot where they'd found Rhonda's abandoned car?
Was that what had happened?
"Well, you stay away at any rate," her mother was saying. Patricia reached over to take the remote back, and she changed the channel. "I don't want you to be the next big news story, all right?"
"Yeah, Mom," Wil muttered. "Listen, I've got to make a call-"
The whispery voice silenced her, and both of them turned to see Uncle Chuck staring at them from where he lay on the bed. Both of them rushed over, one on each side of the bed, the screen behind them flashing as a new commercial came on.
"How are you feeling?" Patricia asked softly.
He chuckled. "Like I've been run down by giant wolves," he muttered. "Been worse, though. What the hell happened?"
"You collapsed at the recital," Wil told him, and when he looked at her, his eyes were fierce.
"Yes, I remember," he whispered, and Wil had the impression that it was more to himself than either of them. He turned back to his niece, and she took his hand. "Can you be a dear and get me something to drink?" Patricia smiled brightly, leaning over to peck him on the cheek.
"Of course. Let me just hit the call button for you," she said, reaching for the button on the wall beside his bed. Uncle Chuck shook his head.
"I'd rather a bottle, something I can close if I want to. I'm in no mood to go spilling a glass all over my lap," he told her with dry humor. She nodded her agreement, slipping her hand from his and leaning down to place a kiss on his weathered cheek. He reached up almost without thinking, wiping it away as his niece stood back up. His eyes had returned to the younger woman in the room, and he gave her a hard look that made Wil shift under his gaze.
"Willa, you stay and keep him company until I'm back," Patricia said. "Your call can wait."
"Yes, Mom," she said blandly, taking the opportunity to pull her gaze from Uncle Chuck's. She offered her mother a reassuring smile.
"All right. I'll be back in a minute." Reluctantly, she turned and left the room. Wil stepped away from the beside, eyeing the remote for the TV – now singing the praises of the latest miracle cleaner that could get any stain out of any fabric – and felt a hand close around her wrist.
"How well do you know that young man you performed with?" Uncle Chuck asked fiercely. His voice was hard, but when she looked at him, the expression on his face was protective rather than angry. Wil blinked at him, surprised, and tugged her wrist away from his grip.
"Not too well," she said. "I met him right before the winter break; he agreed to play for me."
"He's trouble," Uncle Chuck told her sternly enough to make her raise an eyebrow.
"Yes! He is," he stressed, and she rolled her eyes at him. Crossing the room in a couple quick strides, she picked up the remote and turned the screen off, but not before a photo of Rhonda stared back at her for a moment. It seemed the press had made the connection between the location of the attack and where she had disappeared from.
"He seems nice," she told him, setting the remote down. Instead of turning to look at him again, she went over to the couch and sat down. His sudden dislike of Edward seemed ridiculous, but she tried to stay calm, reminding herself that he had just been through a trauma and was probably not thinking straight; the old man usually had a very even temper and a calm head on his shoulders. "He's been an amazing partner for the recital, and he's got incredible talent."
"None of that's worth a crap. Stay away from him, Willa. Trust me."
"And if I don't?" she challenged, fighting her rising temper. It made matters worse than he laughed at her quietly.
"You're just like her, damn it," he said under his breath. "You know I was in law enforcement, Wil – even acted as chief of police before I decided to let someone, er, fresher take the spot. I can read people, and he's a bloodsucking leech, dirty as a two dollar bill."
"Who is?" Patricia asked, coming back in the door with a bottle of water. A man in a white coat followed behind, smiling cordially.
"Glad to have you awake, Mr. Swan," he said, taking the tablet that hung from the end of Uncle Chuck's bed and tapping it to life. He reviewed a few things, then put it back and retrieved a thermometer from his pocket. "Let's take a look at your vitals, shall we?"
Wil excused herself, throwing on her coat and saying quietly that she'd call her mother that afternoon to see how everyone was.
What the hell? She fumed as she strode out of the hospital and called a cab. She couldn't remember a single time that Uncle Chuck had tried to intervene in her life like that. He'd always watched over her of course, keeping her from trouble when she was younger, but what did he think he was doing? Where had that come from?
"I'm a cop, indeed," she muttered, pacing outside the hospital doors. He was an old man recovering from a heart attack, and he was probably delusional from the pain medication. Raising her arm, she rubbed her wrist where he'd grabbed her, unsettled by the severe look in his eyes.
When the cab pulled up, she slipped into the back, sliding a card through the reader on the back of the driver's seat to pay for the trip. She gave her address and settled back into the seat. A newspaper sat folded on the far side of the cab, complimentary reading for the trip, but she ignored it; it was sure to be full of news about Rhonda and the last night's attack, neither subject anything she cared to read about. If she was honest with herself, all she really wanted to do was get home, go to bed, and wake up in a world where her family was safely back home, her roommate was where she belonged, and everything was back to normal.
It struck her that she didn't wish for Andrew for the first time since he's died, and a wave of guilt crashed over her.
The cab stopped, and she muttered a thank you before slipping out. She jerked her purse over her shoulder and strode up to her apartment building, wincing as she flung the door open and it clattered in its hinges from the force. After stomping up the stairs, she let herself into their apartment and dropped her purse on the table.
"Wil, that you?" Kate's voice drifted out from the living room as Wil hung up her coat and kicked off her shoes.
"Yeah, it's me," she called back, her voice clipped.
"How's your uncle doing?" There was a strain in Kate's voice, and when Wil came around the corner, she saw her roommate wore no make up – a rarity for her – and her eyes were red. Eve was nowhere to be seen.
Wil collapsed, exhausted, onto the couch. "It was a heart attack," she said, "but his heart's healthy. He'll be fine." Kate nodded, bringing her hands together and clasping them. She wrung them for a moment, staring at the floor.
"Rhonda's mom called a little while ago…" she started in a voice so quiet Wil could barely hear her. They both froze, and Kate lifted her gaze, their eyes meeting. After a moment, she looked away again. "Apparently, there was something at last night's attack scene with Rhonda's DNA on it or something. She… They're ending the search. Her parents are going home to plan a funeral, and said they'd be back next month sometime for her stuff."
Her voice broke as she said the last word, but Wil scarcely heard it. She sat motionless, feeling as though a bucket of ice water had been dumped on her. Her hands clutched the couch cushion as she fought to keep from being swept away with the images that flashed through her head: planning the funeral with Andrew's parents, being told he was dead, knowing it was over.
Just like it was over for Rhonda.
A part of her wanted to rebel against it. There was no body, after all, no proof. She could still be out there. Missing. Lost. Afraid. Wil didn't want to give up, be helpless as it all falls apart, but what else could she do?
"What if she's still…?" She let the thought trail off, almost ashamed to give it voice.
Kate shook her head. "They say while it's possible, it isn't likely. They've – what was it? – 'exhausted all search opportunities.'"
"So she goes on the missing person list," Wil mused, "and that's it." Bitterness seeped into her words, and she leaned back, closing her eyes.
"Yeah." Kate sighed. "Eve's with Jeremy. He's a mess, wants to keep searching on his own if the police won't. I know how he feels. I hate to think she's just – gone."
Wil nodded, not trusting her voice. She wanted to rage but knew there was no point. Nothing would change the situation; nothing could give them back what they had lost.
Nothing ever did.
"Wil?" Kate asked tentatively. Looking over, Wil saw that her roommate had tears in her eyes again. Wordlessly, they fell into each other, arms wrapping around the other and clinging for dear life as the two of them started to cry.
Somehow, the two of them pulled themselves together…eventually. There was a strange fog-like quality to the way they went about the rest of their day. Wil's mother called not long after she'd arrived home, angry about the state she had left Uncle Chuck in and the way she had set him off. That triggered the anger in Wil, and the two got to shouting until Wil screamed at her mother that her roommate was dead; that brought the fight to a halt, and over an hour later, she at least had the relief of having told her family – finally – what was going on. It didn't make it any better, but when Patricia had offered to come over for a while, Wil was glad she was in town.
Eve and Jeremy arrived around noon; hugs were shared, and Jeremy had finally opened the door to Rhonda's room, entering with a hush as though it was a sacred shrine not to be disturbed. He left not long after, a bag thrown over his shoulder filled with keepsakes and memories. There was nothing said when he left; none of them knew what to say. Jeremy's visit prompted the girls, however, and they spent the afternoon visiting Rhonda's room one by one, paying respects, returning borrowed clothes to her closet and cleaning it up.
Patricia arrived in the late afternoon with dinner in hand, and the four of them ate in awkward silence, the sound of wrappers and crunching fries settled over the three of them like a death knell. Before long, both Kate and Eve stood up and dumped most of their food in the trash. They disappeared into their room without a word, leaving Wil and her mother alone. Patricia was waiting for her daughter to speak, and they ate in silence for a while before Wil looked at her mother with tears in her eyes.
There was something relieving about crying in the arms of your mother. They didn't talk, and Patricia left after they finished eating, but Wil felt a little better for having her there.
Wil sat there much longer, looking out the window and watching the sky slowly fade to black. She thought about attending the post-recital dinner, but quickly decided she wasn't in the mood for it. Instead, she sat in the living room being haunted by the ghosts of her fiancé and her roommate until they finally chased her to her room. When her mother called late in the evening, she let it roll to voicemail. She lay in bed tossing and turning for hours, her eyes falling too often on the pictures of Rhonda and Andrew on her desk.
Finally, she'd gotten up, thrown on a coat, and started to walk.
As the wind began to pick up, she started to regret not putting on anything heavier than her yoga pants and tank top. Her coat buffered much of the cold, but the wind managed to find its way down her neck and up her pant legs, chilling her. She shivered as she went, jet set firm, and her hair played around her face as the wind pulled them every direction.
She figured she would rather be cold and uncomfortable than spend another minute in her apartment being chased by ghosts and memories.
"Hey there, baby," a slurred voice called out from across the street. Wil raised her head, taking the wind square in the face as she squinted over at the voice. Three men had come to a stop under a street light, all openly leering over at her.
"We're having a party," another called to her. "You should come!"
Shaking her head, Wil stuck her hands in her pockets and strode away. She heard their disappointed grumbling behind her and ignored it, turning a corner and starting a wide circuit back toward her apartment.
It was hard to tell, as silence settled back over campus, that things had changed so drastically. If she closed her eyes and set aside the pit in her stomach, she could pretend for a while that this was last month, and that when she returned things would fall back into a more comfortable routine.
She paused, lingering on that thought for a moment. When had things become comfortable?
When had things become so good without Andrew that she wished for them?
A familiar pang of guilt stabbed at her, and no matter how quickly she walked down the street, she couldn't escape it. She knew all that things that people told her, that Andrew would want her to move on and live a happy life, but it seemed like a betrayal somehow. As she came up to a bus stop, she paused, sitting on the bench and leaning back. A few snowflakes were beginning to flutter down from the sky, and one landed on her nose, dissolving into nothing in an instant.
She reached up to touch where it had landed and realized she was crying.
Wil couldn't say why she was crying, nor could she stop it. Hunching over on the bus bench, she set her face in her gloved hands and sobbed for a time, releasing tears that had built up inside her for days, for weeks, maybe even for months. Once the flood gates had opened, she just kept crying, a new thought bringing on a fresh wave of sobs whenever they began to ease. The snow started coming heavier, big fat flakes that swirled as they came near her, each of them disappearing when they touched the ground. No one came past her, no cars on the street or frat boys looking to continue a night of partying. In the back of her mind, she thought it fitting that she should be so alone.
Without Andrew, she should be alone.
The question, the single word, set off a fresh round of tears that shook Wil's shoulders and froze on her hands. This time, though, she knew why she cried, and it scared her terribly.
She was ready to move on.
She didn't want to be. She still loved Andrew more than she could express in words, and ached for the wedding they were supposed to have this spring. Holding his memory close to her for so long, she didn't know what else to do with her life…but she knew she had to do something. Losing Andrew had shattered to pieces the life she had in mind for herself, forcing her to rebuild. She hadn't though. Instead, she'd put everything on permanent hold.
It took losing Rhonda for her to realize that life was short, that you never knew when it would end. It reminded her that she needed to make the most of what she had today. Rhonda had lived like that. Rhonda had always gone for exactly what she wanted, nothing more and nothing less. Maybe it was time for Wil to let herself do the same.
She would always love Andrew, but it was time to allow herself to leave him in the past.