The Next Best Thing

Page 31

Author: Kristan Higgins

I sit next to my sister, who’s shaking wildly. “I can’t believe it,” she manages. “After all this…I thought…he never…”

“Okay, okay, sweetie, calm down,” I murmur, rubbing her shoulder. “Here, let me take Emma.” I pry the baby out of Corinne’s arms and snuggle her against my shoulder. She stops crying instantly, snuffles around for a second and takes one of those shuddering breaths that indicates she’s done. Corinne, however, continues.

“When did you guys get here?” I ask.

“Two hours ago,” she says.

“Oh, honey! You should’ve called me right away.”

“There were too many things to do,” she says, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. I rub her back with my free hand. Emma sighs against my neck, warm and heavy with sleep.

“Should I call Mom?” I ask, rather surprised she isn’t here already.

“No!” Corinne wails. The baby jerks in her sleep. “You’re bad enough!”

I give her a quizzical look, then sigh. Right. I’m a harbinger of death. Forgot. “Okay, honey, okay. That’s fine. Now try to calm down and tell me what happened.”

Bit by bit, sob by sob, I get the story. Christopher and Corinne had been discussing the fact that Chris hadn’t eaten any leafy greens that day, and she was urging him to finish his spinach. Chris rubbed his chest, said it felt a little tight and Corinne had screamed, made him lie flat “—so I could give him CPR, you know?—” and called 911, convinced he was breathing his last. It did seem to get worse while she was on the phone, and once he was in the E.R., the doctors just whisked him away.

“He could be dying!” Corinne squeaks. “All alone, dying!” I hug her awkwardly around Emma. My own eyes fill. Please, Daddy, I pray. Please, Jimmy. Don’t let this happen to Corinne, too.

“He’s really healthy, Cory,” I murmur, trying to sound calm and wise. “I’m sure this is nothing.” Chris is healthy, my goodness. His cholesterol is 142, a number called “un-American” by the doctor and proudly relayed to me just a few days ago when Corinne gave me the health update.

But, already, images of Christopher’s funeral are knifing through my head. Emma growing up without her dad, as Corinne and I did, but without the cushion of memories that I, at least, have held like little diamonds all these years.

The door opens. “Hey,” Ethan says, smiling at Corinne. “He’s fine.”

“Oh, thank you, God!” I blurt, patting my niece’s back. Your father’s fine, sweetheart. Thank you, Jimmy, thank you, Daddy.

Ethan sits next to Corinne and puts his arm around her shoulders. “The doctor says you can come on down and he’ll talk to you and Chris together. Okay? You need a drink of water first?”

She leans against Ethan for a second, struggling to stay under even moderate control, and shakes her head, then turns to me. “Please come,” she says in a small voice, and my heart pulls.

“He’s fine, did you hear, honey? He’s fine.” I kiss her cheek and stand, Emma still snoozing away. Ethan rises and offers Corinne his hand, which she grabs gratefully.

“You’re sure he’s fine?” she asks Ethan.

“That’s what the nurse said,” he assures her.

We walk down the hall, back toward the busy E.R. “Right here,” Ethan says, pointing to a curtain.

“Ethan, will you hold the baby?” Corinne asks. “I don’t want her near all these germs.”

“Sure. I’ll take her up to the lobby, how’s that?” Ethan offers, gently taking Emma from me. His hands are practiced and sure, and he drops a kiss on Emma’s little head. Then he looks at me, and his mouth curls in a smile, causing my stomach to squeeze.

“Thanks, Ethan. Lucy, come on,” Corinne urges. She pushes back the curtain, then bursts into renewed sobs at the sight of her husband, who looks quite healthy to me, sitting up in bed in a johnny coat.

Corinne falls on him, sobbing. “Christopher! Oh, baby! I thought you were dead!”

The words echo in my head. I’d said the same thing to Ethan this very night.

“Hi, there” comes a voice. Great. It’s Dr. Hateswomen. He frowns at the sight of me, then shakes Corinne’s hand. “I’m Dr. Porter. Your husband here is going to be just fine. His EKG is completely normal, and the first two rounds of blood work are fine.”

“He had chest pain!” Corinne objects. “My father was only forty-two, and he died of a heart attack.”

“Right, right,” the doctor says condescendingly. “Well, your husband is fine, as I just told you. It was just stress.”

“Stress? He doesn’t have stress!” Corinne objects.

“Yes, I do, damn it!” Christopher barks, causing Corinne and me both to jump. “You’re killing me, Corinne! Every damn day, you’re waiting for me to die! I eat a piece of cheese, and your face goes white. I’m five minutes late, and you’ve called the police! Everything in our house is so f**king perfect, I feel like a goddamn bull in a china shop! And the baby, my God! You make me feel like I’m going to drop her on her head, following me around every time I pick her up! It’s gotten so I’m scared to touch my own child!”

Corinne looks like she’s been clubbed. I can’t say I’ve ever heard Christopher swear before. “Chris—” I begin.

“No, Lucy. You don’t understand. She’s terrified she’ll end up like you, and she’s sucking the joy from our lives, and it’s no wonder I landed in the E.R.”

“He has a point,” Dr. Hateswomen says. “We certainly advocate a healthy diet and regular exercise, but he told me about how you time him on the elliptical and won’t let him order for himself in restaurants, Mrs….uh—” he glances at his chart “—Mrs. Duvall. It’s a bit much.”

“And I’ve had it. I can put cream in my goddamn coffee if I want to, Corinne,” Christopher bellows. “That’s right! Cream! Not even half-and-half!” He swings his legs over the side of the bed, jerks off the hospital gown and grabs his shirt. “I’m staying with Jerry Mitchell tonight,” he informs Corinne, whose eyes look like they’re going to pop out and roll across the floor. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

With that he stands, then looks at the doctor. “Can I go?” he demands.

“Sure,” Dr. Hateswomen says. “Try to keep the stress level low.”

“Great advice,” I can’t help saying. Corinne wrings her hands.

The good doctor turns an impassive gaze on me. “Do I know you?”

“Um…I was in a while ago.” I feel my cheeks warming.

“Oh, yes. Hallucinations. Gotcha. Ciao.”

With that he leaves, his white coat flapping after him.

“Chris, honey, you can’t…I didn’t…” my sister attempts, tears streaking down her cheeks.

“Corinne, I need a little space. Okay? We’ll talk soon.” My brother-in-law looks at me. “Maybe she can stay with you tonight,” he says in a gentler voice.

“Sure,” I answer.

Then Christopher is gone, and Corinne falls apart for real.

A FEW HOURS LATER, Corinne is sleeping on my couch, wrapped in an afghan. She’s zonked, thanks in large part to the Valium Dr. Hateswomen saw fit to give her upon hearing her wails after Chris left. Ethan made a run to Corinne’s house to fetch the portable crib, diapers and thirty-six other things that Corinne listed as absolutely necessary for an overnight away from home.

I’m in the kitchen with Emma, who’s taking her first bottle like a champ. Corinne keeps a can of formula in the diaper bag in case of her own death, and Emma is glugging away, eyes closed. Her skin is miraculously gorgeous…all shades of pink perfection, and her fingernails have completely charmed me. She holds my pinkie as she drinks, and it’s fair to say I’m madly in love with my little niece.

“Hey.” Ethan’s voice is soft. With some effort, I tear my eyes off of Emma and look up at him. “I set up the portable crib in your room. Figured Corinne needed some sleep.”

“Great,” I answer. “Thanks, Ethan.” I look back down at Emma and ease the nipple out of her mouth. Her lips purse, but her eyes stay closed.

“You’ll make a great mom,” Ethan murmurs, and I don’t look at his face. My heart twists painfully, afraid that he’s about to say something more. It’s just not something I can think about right now, not after imagining another husband dying tonight. Instead I look back down at Emma and adjust her blanket.

“I guess I’ll head upstairs,” Ethan says.

“Okay,” I agree, then look back at him. “Thank you, Ethan. You’ve been great.”

He gives a little smile. “Sleep tight.”

Sighing, I ease out of the chair and carry Emma carefully into my room. Ethan made the little portable crib with a sheet and a pink blanket, which is folded neatly at the bottom. A stuffed pink giraffe is there, too. Nice touch. He really does have that fatherhood thing down.

I lay my niece in the crib and cover her, moving the giraffe well away from her face. She gives a little murmur, and again, my heart catches. I stay for a moment, resting my hand on her little shoulder to reassure her, then straighten up slowly, my back muscles protesting. It’s been a long, long day.

Corinne is awake. “Is she okay?” she asks as I come out of my bedroom.

“She’s great,” I answer. “Sleeping like a little angel.”

Corinne smiles a little at that. “Did Christopher call?” she whispers.

I motion for her to sit on the couch, then curl up in the chair opposite her. “No, honey. Not yet.”

“We’ve never fought,” she says, two tears spilling out of her eyes.

I blink. “And you’ve been married for three years?”

“Three years, six months and nine days,” she says, and that’s what breaks my heart, because I, too, always knew exactly how long Jimmy and I were together.

“That’s a long time to go without a fight,” I murmur.

“I just want everything to be perfect,” she says, wiping her eyes. “What if we have a fight and then he dies? What if the last thing I say to him is ‘I hate your mother’or ‘Can’t you ever remember to take out the trash?’ What if I was like Mom, yelling at him to get out of the bathroom? I’d never forgive myself.” Corinne weeps. I get up and fetch a box of tissues and a glass of water.

“Thanks,” she mumbles, blowing her nose. We’re both quiet for a minute or two. Outside, the wind gusts off the ocean, catching that particular hollow under the bridge in an unearthly, mournful howl.

“I’m so scared of ending up like you,” Corinne says softly. Her mouth wobbles. “And I’m so sorry for you, Lucy.”

I sigh, feeling about a hundred years old. “It was horrible,” I admit. “But, Corinne, I…I lived, you know?” I look square at my sister. “And you know what I miss the most?” She shakes her head and wipes her eyes. “I miss…I miss the everyday stuff. The not-perfect stuff.”

My own eyes fill abruptly. “We had this fight,” I say, my voice wobbling. “It was over me doing the desserts at Gianni’s. Marie did them all, you know?” Corinne nods. “And I just wanted them to carry one thing of mine, this limoncello tart with raspberries…well, heck, it doesn’t matter. But he took his mother’s side, and we fought that night, and I was folding laundry and I threw a pair of socks at his head.”

I can still see the stunned look on Jimmy’s face when the socks bounced off his forehead. Suddenly a hundred dopey, beloved memories slice through my heart like shrapnel…Jimmy’s habit of just walking into the bathroom, no matter what I was doing in there. The way he’d do a hundred push-ups before bed, then admire his biceps and encourage me to do the same. His inability to start the day without cross-checking three weather forecasts as if he was a sailor dependent on the winds.

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