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© 2018 by Kate Robards

CHAPTER ONE

Willa
Now

 

If Willa Stannard were on air to break the news of her death, she’d report that the police lights sliced through the night. Carved through the darkness. Fragmented the neighborhood. Anything to give a dead-end story a sense of urgency.


It was a hard habit to break, the urge to compose stories the moment there was any quiet. Willa couldn’t escape the hum of words in her mind. She’d string together effortlessly eloquent sentences that were always sharper than the ones the production assistants drafted.

 

It wouldn’t even be a story worth reporting, not at first. Until the responding officer set off the police scanner airwaves with a recognizable name, a story about a woman dead in her bathtub wouldn’t have made it onto the air. Chicago was too big, with too many deaths, for it to matter.


She knew that in the broadcast news business she wasn’t ideal. She was unlikeable. Her unflinching honesty, deadpan observations, and naked ambition never contributed well to on-air ratings. When she was still on the evening news, older women had been her worst-performing demographic.


But tomorrow, when her former colleague, a charming brunette with controlled sadness in her eyes, would break the story that it was Willa who was found in a bathtub by the chocolate factory, she knew it would be the 55+ group who would mourn the most for her death.

 

She sank deeper into the tepid water. She practiced for this moment. Role-played the instant when his fire-scarred arms would hold her underwater. She’d waited too long, grown too comfortable with her own death, to fight anymore. Since she was a little girl, breathing in the scent of fresh-picked poppies and baby’s breath, fighting to ignore the hot pain in her ribs from the heel of his boot, she knew he’d kill her.


Her arm hairs prickled, crying for a shot of hot water. She swiped at her forearm to smooth out the hairs and marveled at the spray of red her wrist left behind in the water. She sank lower until her ears submerged and she heard an insistent, dull buzz, the way a motorboat sounds when you’re swimming. It reminded her of the rattle of cicadas at night.


*


Later, after all this, people would tell stories about her. There would be vague memories, myths, and speculations. They’d wonder if her on-air breakdown was the beginning of her downfall. They felt a special privilege to have witnessed it, like the morbid curiosity that causes gaper’s blocks in traffic. And they’d be right, mostly. But they didn’t know what came first.