Rome, Italy, December 13th
I remained still, trying to distance myself from the nauseating smell of the trash, looking at the body lying on top of the pile of garbage like a tattered bundle of clothing.
I didn’t mind the frosty wind cutting my face and my hands; neither did I realize I had forgotten my coat in the car.
How could murdering be that easy? I couldn’t avoid asking myself with a feeling of omnipotence that should have been clashing with my sense of guilt.
I couldn’t imagine myself doing such a heinous act, not even in my worst nightmares.
Alexandra was beautiful, and she knew she was. I could expect nothing but trouble from a woman like that.
Just a blurry shade of surprise had crossed her eyes when she noticed I was waiting for her by the garages. But she couldn’t rally anything but strong words to face my ingenuous attempt to bring clearness to our lives.
In the face of such arrogance, my anger had grown like an ocean wave, and my only thought had been to shut her up. And so I hit her, and then again—till she had fallen lifeless to the ground.
I deeply breathed in and out in the attempt to quit gasping. Managing to take Alexandra’s body off the car had been harder than I imagined. But I did it.
I turned, to make sure nobody was around. Even in the dark, the sleazy scenery of the suburbs appeared depressing. But the background was not something I wanted to focus on.
I gazed one last time at the body lying partially visible beneath the mound of trash and thought that, however hard it might be to do, maybe one day I would forget about that mess. The truth is it had just been a “terrible accident.”
The irreparable would not have taken place, if only Alexandra had not shown so much scorn.
What was really important now was to protect that secret. No matter what!
Then I felt numerous drops of sweat sliding down my temples and my neck. Maybe because of that thought. Or maybe because of the anger that, while cooling down, was making room for a new fear about my future.
On my way back, I turned the car’s heater on to dry my sweaty shirt. I tried to think about something else and switched the radio on to listen to some good songs.
I needed to relax. Yes, I had to relax and erase from my mind what had occurred in the last hour. So that no one could read in my eyes that I had just killed someone.
Sparkling snowflakes floated in the air like puffy cotton balls. Nora watched them multiplying across the windows and, as always happened to her during a snowfall, she immediately felt a joyful sensation.
Few things are better than a white Christmas, she thought while looking out the window. The lights in the gardens; the colorful decorations on the trees; the fireplaces sending smoke up the chimneys; and all that snow covering the streets, the woods, and the boats at the harbor.
But she was not going to spend the coming festivities in Martha’s Vineyard, Nora reminded herself. And as far as she knew, it didn’t snow that often in Rome.
Such a long time had passed since she’d seen those landscapes she loved, or had a pizza in a “trattoria” in Trastevere, or simply chilled on the steps of Piazza di Spagna.
Her only regret was that she wouldn’t get to spend Christmas with her little nephews. Mike Repetti, her daughter Meg’s new fiancé, had family in Vermont, and Meg had decided to go along with him only after making sure that her mother was not going to spend her festivities on her own.
But she was glad to go back to Rome and spend some time with Susan. The last time she visited, she wasn’t really in the mood for a tour of the city. Susan had then been recovering at the hospital after a terrible car accident in which she had lost her sight. And those were not easy days.
If only Joe had known how tough her niece’s life had been that last year...
But maybe he had known, Nora thought just a moment later.
In the last months, the boundaries between what was real and what wasn’t had blurred in her thoughts. And possible and impossible seemed to have faded one into the other.
The snow in front of her was falling thicker, and her eyes were captured by the beauty. The flakes fluctuated lightly like particles of an intricate lace, when suddenly Susan’s crying face materialized in front of her eyes.
The image was so realistic, it made Nora step back in surprise.
The floor, too, started to waver so intensely under her feet that she had to lean on the dresser in order not to fall on the floor.
Nora took a deep breath, then closed her eyes for few seconds. When she opened them, she felt as if she had regained a bit of stability in her legs.
She hadn’t eaten much that morning, and maybe that feeling was just a consequence of low blood sugar, she thought. Maybe it was just a bout of dizziness. The thought of Susan had made her imagine seeing her in the midst of that snow lace.
But her image seemed so real...
A moment later, Nora went back in front of the window to erase the uneasiness she was still feeling. The snow was falling even more intensely, and by now it was enveloping the landscape like a soft blanket.
She stood still while observing, but this time saw nothing but snow.
“Do you think the price is negotiable, Mrs. Cooper?”
Ernie Jackson’s voice made her wince. Nora turned toward the client she had taken to visit Vineyard Haven’s cottage and tried to hide her confusion.
Mr. Jackson had a scrawny face and the aloof look of someone who carried pain in his heart. He was a quiet man, and Nora realized she still did not understand if he was interested in the old cottage that just few weeks earlier her agency had been put in charge to sell.
But that last question regarding the price just opened her up to a new perspective...
“After so many years doing this job, let me tell you, Mr. Jackson, that there are no unnegotiable prices. There just are sellers who don’t want to sell, or buyers who are not interested enough to buy.”
As if he didn’t hear her, Ernie Jackson remained silent, staring at the ocean through the picture glass window.
“My wife would have loved this house.”
Nora immediately recognized the man’s silence, that timid smile, and that invisible wall that separated him from the rest of the world. He was a “survivor” too. Like herself and many others like her, he lived carrying the weight of having lost forever the person he had most loved in the whole world.
It was clear from the way Mr. Jackson had said those words that Mrs. Jackson was not part of the world of the living anymore.
You can make it, Mr. Jackson, she would have liked to tell him. There are many out there who’ve gone through this and made it. I have, myself. Even if my life is not the same as it used to be.
“I am very sorry about your wife,” she said with sincerity. “For how absurd and unjust it may now seem, it will get better—you’ll see.”
“Take all the time you need,” she then added while handing him her business card. “Here is my contact information—don’t hesitate to call me.”
The man nodded and, unexpectedly, before saying good-bye, left her with a purchase proposal Nora considered more than fair.
How had it happened, then, that suddenly the enchantment and joyfulness of the imminent Christmas season vanished?
Nora hurried to close the windows and realized it was time for her to go. The snow was copiously falling from the sky, soon enough Martha’s Vineyard’s roads would be inaccessible and she did not intend to get stuck in the city.
Maybe because of seeing Susan’s face through the snow, or because of the anxiety she suddenly felt, a cold sweat was now pearling on her forehead, and her heartbeats were amplified in her chest.
She hadn’t felt like this since many months before.
She only had the living room windows left to close. Then she could head out, and maybe the crisp air would help her feel better.
She had experienced panic attacks before. But that was when Joe had died and someone was trying to take her Lake Tashmoo’s house from her.
Nora barely closed her eyes and took a deep breath the way her yoga teacher had taught her. Once, twice, and once again.
Then her heartbeat slowly stabilized, and her breath became less wheezy.
It may have been the sadness I felt in that man, she thought. The fresh pain from his wife’s loss had reminded her of her own.
Or maybe it had been Susan’s crying face that she thought she had seen in the snowfall.
She took the house keys from the kitchen table, where she had left them, and tried to get rid of that feeling.
She had done so much in the last months to get back in control of her life. And what if she was starting to have visions again?
No. She didn’t know what had just happened, but she was sure it would not recur. She was not going to see someone crying in the midst of the snowfall or in any other place again. She was not going to have her dead husband write her messages with the Scrabble letters again the way it had happened just a year before.
She had accepted the way Joe managed to communicate with her, and also that he had suddenly stopped.
She had no rational answers for that, but surely she didn’t intend to talk about it with anyone, but...
But did she feel ready to reopen that door to the beyond, with the risk of finding some restless soul wanting to get in touch with her again, just to solve problems left unresolved on earth?
Maybe not. Because that “gift”—which was how her friend Debbie called it—sometimes made her feel like she had gone nuts.
She would have to call Judith to tell her to close the agency in advance that night and go back home. And that’s what she herself was going to do, as well as avoid getting stuck in the snow.
Nora lingered for just a moment in front of the cottage’s door before heading out into the cold. Because as much as she desired to ignore it, she knew too well the power of signs and dreams not to understand that soon something else was going to happen.