44 - Obituary

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Nat's car was a piece of shit. It had sat unused in their driveway for so long that she was surprised when it still started, however much it groaned in protest. She'd meant to sell it, to pawn it off on some teenager who needed a first car to break in, but something had stopped her. The same impulse, maybe, that had driven her to keeping her own separate bank account. 

The escape fund. 

She'd told herself she would never need to use it. That she clung to it just as a security blanket. 

And now, the ink on their marriage certificate was barely dry, and she was running away. 

Just for a little while, she told herself. Just for a few days until she could calm down. Once she was thinking clearly again, she could approach Liz and have a real conversation. She could clear the air about everything that had happened, and maybe by then Liz would be calm, and it could all be okay again. 

She paid for the motel room in cash and, because she couldn't bring herself to heartlessness -- even now, even with Fluff's decomposing body fresh in her memory -- she texted her wife to let her know that she was safe, and she loved her, and she would be home when she felt better. 

She saw the "seen" checkmark and put her phone in a drawer. 

She hung the "do not disturb" sign on the door and slept for hours, dreamless and undisturbed, waking with the dawn feeling more alive than she had in weeks. 

She made her way down to the lobby to nibble at the edge of danishes and limp pieces of cut-up fruit, and every bite tasted sweet and wonderful, and something loosened in her chest. She went back to the room and cried, gentle tears that fell easily for hours. She wept in grief, for Fluff, for her marriage, for a life that had been changed somehow, irrevocably, without her noticing it or being able to stop it. 

She felt better afterward. Lighter. She slept again. 

She woke in the evening and drove to a nearby diner. She ordered a grilled cheese and started by eating the pickle spear, chewing each bite thoughtfully and methodically as she gazed at nothing in particular and tried to make sense of her life. 

She wondered whether Liz was keeping an eye on the shop. 

Maybe it was good to leave her alone with Liam. Force her to take some full-time responsibility. 

Maybe she'd handed him off to his father and she'd learn nothing from this. Maybe she was stewing in her solitude the way Nat currently was. Maybe she was miserable. 

Or maybe she was just fine, and that hurt worst of all. 

Nat became suddenly and intensely aware of the other people in the diner, couples and families, and the loneliness was swift and crushing. She got up from her table, walking to the front where newspapers sat in their plastic dispensers, and put in a quarter to buy the local paper just so she'd have something to read so she wouldn't be so aware of the watchful eyes of strangers who probably weren't looking at her at all. 

She flipped through the pages of the paper, skimming the headlines, trying to feign interest for an audience of no one but herself. 

The photo caught her eye. A familiar face, shocking in its unexpected appearance. She glanced with uneasy certainty at the header of the page, confirming what she had immediately known: An obituary. 

Miriam Rutherford, 82. 

The old woman had died in her rocking chair, peaceful, probably passing in her sleep. She was survived by a beloved niece and several members of her church congregation. 

Nat had never gotten the opportunity to speak to her again after that day in her sitting room. She had never even handed her a cup of tea. Now she never would. 

In the photograph accompanying the short obituary, Miriam's fox stole was curled around her neck, the face pointed toward the camera. Its deflated eyes were uneven, one slit wider than the other. It looked as if it were winking. 

Nat folded up the paper and laid out a tip in cash for her mostly uneaten food, then left, climbing into her car and driving toward University Avenue, where she knew the college library -- with its banks of computers and musty rows of books -- would be open well into the darkest hours of the night.

She needed answers, and she had a good idea where to start looking for them. 

For the first time, her head cleared from the malaise that had seemed to settle over the house like a cruel fog, she thought she knew what the right question finally was. 

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