Now, too late, she knew who’d lied to her.
Clara’s heart threw itself against her ribs, like something caged and terrified and desperate to escape. She realized she was holding her breath and wondered for how long. To make up for it she started breathing rapidly.
Peter was talking but his voice was muffled, far away. Drowned out by the shrieking in her head, and the pounding in her chest.
And the noise building behind the doors. As they got closer.
“This’s going to be fun,” said Peter, with a reassuring smile.
Clara opened her hand and dropped her purse. It fell with a plop to the floor, since it was all but empty, containing simply a breath mint and the tiny paint brush from the first paint-by-number set her grandmother had given her.
Clara dropped to her knees, pretending to gather up invisible items and stuff them into her clutch. She lowered her head, trying to catch her breath, and wondered if she was about to pass out.
“Deep breath in,” she heard. “Deep breath out.”
Clara stared from the purse on the gleaming marble floor to the man crouched across from her.
It wasn’t Peter.
Instead, she saw her friend and neighbor from Three Pines, Olivier Brulé. He was kneeling beside her, watching, his kind eyes life preservers thrown to a drowning woman. She held them.
“Deep breath in,” he whispered. His voice was calm. This was their own private crisis. Their own private rescue.
She took a deep breath in.
“I don’t think I can do it.” Clara leaned forward, feeling faint. She could feel the walls closing in, and see Peter’s polished black leather shoes on the floor ahead. Where he’d finally stopped. Not missing her right away. Not noticing his wife was kneeling on the floor.
“I know,” whispered Olivier. “But I also know you. Whether it’s on your knees or on your feet, you’re going through that door.” He nodded toward the end of the hall, his eyes never leaving hers. “It might as well be on your feet.”
“But it’s not too late.” Clara searched his face. Seeing his silky blond hair, and the lines only visible very close up. More lines than a thirty-eight-year-old man should have. “I could leave. Go back home.”
Olivier’s kindly face disappeared and she saw again her garden, as she’d seen it that morning, the mist not yet burned off. The dew heavy under her rubber boots. The early roses and late peonies damp and fragrant. She’d sat on the wooden bench in their backyard, with her morning coffee, and she’d thought about the day ahead.
Not once had she imagined herself collapsed on the floor. In terror. Longing to leave. To go back to the garden.
But Olivier was right. She wouldn’t return. Not yet.
Oh, no no no. She’d have to go through those doors. They were the only way home now.
“Deep breath out,” Olivier whispered, with a smile.
Clara laughed, and exhaled. “You’d make a good midwife.”
“What’re you two doing down there?” Gabri asked as he watched Clara and his partner. “I know what Olivier usually does in that position and I hope that isn’t it.” He turned to Peter. “Though that might explain the laughter.”
“Ready?” Olivier handed Clara her purse and they got to their feet.
Gabri, never far from Olivier’s side, gave Clara a bear hug. “You OK?” He examined her closely. He was big, though Gabri preferred to call himself “burly,” his face unscored by the worry lines of his partner.
“I’m fine,” said Clara.
“Fucked up, insecure, neurotic and egotistical?” asked Gabri.
“Great. So’m I. And so’s everyone through there.” Gabri gestured toward the door. “What they aren’t is the fabulous artist with the solo show. So you’re both fine and famous.”
“Coming?” asked Peter, waving toward Clara and smiling.
She hesitated, then taking Peter’s hand, they walked together down the corridor, the sharp echoes of their feet not quite masking the merriment on the other side.
They’re laughing, thought Clara. They’re laughing at my art.
And in that instant the body of the poem surfaced. The rest of it was revealed.
Oh, no no no, thought Clara. Still the dead one lay moaning.
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
* * *
From far off Armand Gamache could hear the sound of children playing. He knew where it was coming from. The park across the way, though he couldn’t see the children through the maple trees in late spring leaf. He sometimes liked to sit there and pretend the shouts and laughter came from his young grandchildren, Florence and Zora. He imagined his son Daniel and Roslyn were in the park, watching their children. And that soon they’d walk hand in hand across the quiet street in the very center of the great city, for dinner. Or he and Reine-Marie would join them. And play catch, or conkers.