A Hopeless Case by Hilary Davidson, short story book cover artwork

“A Hopeless Case” by Hilary Davidson

Open this story in our mobile app!

Given just six months to live, weak from chemo, and unloved by her husband, Sarah is ready to throw herself under a train at Grand Central Station — until a chance encounter makes her realize that some things are still worth living for. And then things really get interesting.

About the Author
Hilary Davidson’s debut novel, The Damage Done, won multiple awards and spawned a mystery series set in international destinations. Her latest book is the dark thriller Blood Always Tells, a departure from her series. Her widely acclaimed, award-winning short stories have been featured everywhere from Ellery Queen to Thuglit. A Toronto-born travel journalist and the author of eighteen nonfiction books, she has lived in New York City since October 2001.
A Hopeless Case

Jump, Sarah ordered herself.

The number four express train was roaring towards the station. It was all of nine, maybe ten heartbeats away.

Jump. Jump. Jump. No more excuses. Time to jump.

She’d been mentally preparing for this moment for days, but now that the time to act was upon her, she hesitated, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. When she fantasized about her death, it seemed so simple. She would fall forward in a gentle arc, like a scuba diver pushing one flippered foot off a pier, just as she and Colin had done countless times into the warm embrace of the Caribbean. She’d dive for the subway tracks, but be intercepted by the train. It would be a clean, swift meeting of flesh and metal with only one possible outcome.

No one else would be harmed. That was essential.

What Sarah hadn’t envisioned, until she was standing on the platform, was the driver of the train. In her daydream, it was just a faceless, eyeless train. She saw herself being killed before anyone knew what had happened. She hadn’t thought about the driver seeing her. A week earlier, when she’d been walking on the George Washington Bridge, looking for the right spot to leap from, she’d realized how impossible it would be to end her life there. Certainly, she would die, but before her body was cold, rescue workers would be dragged in. Sarah didn’t want anyone else to be affected by her death. What if the subway driver saw her throw herself in front of the train? Would that person have nightmares for weeks or months or years to come, visions of a forty-five-year-old woman in a headscarf splattering before their eyes?

The train rushed past. Sarah opened her eyes and caught a silvery blur, before it screeched to a halt. She’d missed another chance. Her chest felt heavy yet hollow at the thought of returning to her empty little apartment.

“Ma’am?” Suddenly, there was a hand on her arm. Sarah turned her head, blinking in surprise. Beside her was a uniformed police officer, a thirtyish woman with her black hair pulled back a severe style that only emphasized the gentle roundness of her face.

“Yes?” Sarah whispered, unsure whether the other woman was part of a dream.

“Are you okay, ma’am?”

“I’m…” Sarah started to speak, but the doors of the train closed and it started to pull out of the station, screeching as it went. Her lips formed the words, “I’m fine,” but the noise covered up her lie. How long had it been since she’d felt fine? It had been over a year since the bottom had fallen out of her world.

“You looked like you were about to fall off the platform,” the officer said. “Like maybe you were having a dizzy spell. You feeling maybe a little lightheaded?”

“A little,” Sarah repeated after her. It was as good an explanation as any. “Maybe a little.”

“Okay, walk with me.”

“Where?” Sarah asked, but she was already following. The woman was leading her by the hand, as if she were a kindergartener. Sarah was aware she’d developed such a suggestible personality since getting sick. Before the chemotherapy and the countless other meds had weakened her body and clouded her mind, she’d been another person altogether. Her mother used to describe her as ornery, like a horse that hadn’t been broken. They’d fought constantly, but Sarah missed her mother now that she was gone. It had been a decade since she’d passed, and even though Sarah knew it would earn her a smug I told you so, she wanted to tell her mother she’d been right about Colin Gratham when she’d called him a shameless, self-indulgent brat. After twenty years of marriage, Sarah had arrived at the same conclusion.

“Just over to the bench,” the officer said, her voice placid, as if they were out at a park for a stroll. “I think you ought to rest your legs for a bit.”

There was something southern in the lilt of the officer’s voice, and Sarah let its gentleness lull her. She felt quietly placid, being led along like a lamb.

“This looks good.” The cop gestured at a wooden bench and Sarah took a seat. The cop sat next to her, making a small sigh of pleasure, keeping up the pleasant companionability. Sarah kept her head down, worried what the cop might see in her face.

“I’m Elena, by the way. What’s your name?” the cop asked.

Even though Sarah wanted to make something up, she said, “Sarah.”

“That’s a pretty headscarf.”

“Thank you.”

“You have cancer?” the cop asked. Her voice was gentle.

“Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy.” Sarah’s mouth felt tired reciting all those horrible, hateful syllables, but she read the incomprehension in the other woman’s face. “I’ve been battling autoimmune diseases for a long time,” she explained. “Then I suddenly started having neurological problems, too. Every treatment has failed. The last-ditch resort is chemo.”

Elena nodded. “When I saw the scarf, I thought chemo. When my mama had it, she lost her hair, too. Even her eyebrows.”

Sarah risked a tiny smile. At least she still had her eyebrows. “How long ago did she…” How long ago did she die, she wanted to ask, but her dry lips wouldn’t form the words.

“That was six years ago. But it all grew back, you know. Just took some time.”

It was on the tip of Sarah’s tongue to say, How could a dead woman’s hair grow back? Then she realized, the police officer’s mother hadn’t died. Her cancer must’ve gone into remission. Lucky woman, Sarah thought, suddenly envious. Her eyes were hot and watery, and she struggled to keep her composure. When Dr. Bob, who was an old family friend, told her she only had six months to live, Sarah had taken the news stoically. She’d already been through surgery and chemo and all of the other hellishness cancer had thrown her way. What she hadn’t expected was her husband’s reaction. She’d imagined him holding her when she shared the doctor’s awful prediction. Instead, Colin had crossed his arms in front of his chest. I can’t take six more months of this, he’d told her. That’s too much to ask of anyone.

What do you want me to do? Sarah had asked him, frantic.

There are other options, Colin had said. It would be so much easier. Think of all the suffering you’ll avoid.

I don’t care about the pain, she’d cried.

Other people’s suffering, he’d clarified. Do you have any idea how hard it is to live with someone who’s on the edge of death? How impossible it is to move forward with anything in your own life while you’re waiting for them to die?

The memory of his words still brought bile into her throat.

“It will get better, you know.” The cop, Elena, brought her mind back into the present. She sounded so reassuring. Sarah wanted to believe her. But she could still hear Dr. Bob saying, I don’t want to call this a hopeless case, but I’m so very sorry, Sarah. Dr. Bob had shaken his head and started at his plump little hands. She knew it was all but over for her.

“No, it won’t get better,” Sarah blurted out.

“Why would you say a thing like that?” The cop’s brown eyes were so warm. Sarah knew she didn’t understand a thing. Elena would never comprehend what it was like to be married to a man who was impatient for her to die. Months ago, she’d put on a bathing suit and tried to join him in the hot tub on their back deck. What are you doing? he’d demanded. I just cleaned it, you know. As if his own wife were a plague rat that might infect him. Then Colin had rented a small apartment for Sarah near the hospital. He pretended to be thoughtful, but she realized he just wanted her out of their house. There was such coldness in him. When they’d married, Sarah had loved his chiseled looks and pale blue eyes. Now, he seemed like an iceberg to her. She saw him once a month, and he was always armed with materials from Dying With Dignity and the Neptune Society. She knew he was just counting the days until she died.

“I have only a few months left to live,” Sarah said. “And I’m alone.”

“No kids? No husband? What about a sibling?”

“I have a cousin. She’s my best friend, and she’s been wonderful. But she’s gone through some terrible things herself and I hate to burden her.” Sarah regarded Louise with such admiration. Louise had nursed her own husband through a short but brutal illness, burying him eight months ago. Sarah exhaled a long breath, feeling as if her chest was ready to collapse in on itself. How could you burden someone who’s already been through the wringer? Louise was already a solid reservoir of support, dropping by for regular visits and bringing a steady supply of medical marijuana that Sarah appreciated and vitamins that Sarah didn’t have the heart to tell her went straight into the garbage. Sarah had long since given up hope in the healing power of any pill. “I have maybe three more months to live. That’s all I’ve got left.”

“Okay, then why don’t you use it?”

Sarah was expecting sympathy, not a challenge. “Excuse me?”

“Everybody gets only a finite amount of time here, you know. Look around you. Some people, walking around healthy, they might be gone in a week. They just don’t know it. But you know. So use your time.”

“To do what?”

“Whatever you want. Come on, there’ve got to be a million things you want to do, right? And you’re not in a sickbed. You look good. If it weren’t for your hair, I’d never have guessed you were sick.” The cop smiled at her. “Come on, dream a bit. What do you want to do?”

“I always wanted to go to Italy,” Sarah said. “Ever since I saw A Room With a View. That must sound so stupid.”

“Why? Who wouldn’t want to go to Italy? Seriously, think about it. Are you well enough to travel?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did your doctor ban you from flying? Are there treatments you have to hang around for?”

She tried to picture what Dr. Bob would say. Technically, he was Colin’s friend, but she felt sympathy from him that she never got from her husband. Dr. Bob would understand her desire to go to Italy, she was sure. “No, nothing like that. It’s just that my husband never wanted to go to Italy.”

“Do you have the money to do it?”

Sarah stopped to consider that. She knew she did. Money was the one thing she had in abundance. She could go to Italy a dozen times, if only she had the time. It was just that Colin refused to travel anywhere that English wasn’t the primary language. He’d never admit that, but after years together, she was well aware of his weaknesses. “Yes, but…”

“But nothing! I’m telling you, go to Italy. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy every day you have.” Elena the cop gave her hand a gentle pat. “And don’t put too much stock in what doctors say. They told my mama she’d be dead in a year. She said she’s not dying, just so she can spite them.”

Sarah nodded. The police officer’s words reverberated in her head, knocking cobwebs out of the corners. What had she been thinking, letting her last days drag on in a tiny, airless apartment, tight with thoughts of death? Why wasn’t she doing what she wanted to do? Whatever urge she’d felt to harm herself was gone now, extinguished like a flame deprived of oxygen. Why had she wanted to do something so foolish? It wasn’t like her at all. Dr. Bob had prescribed an antidepressant for her that seemed to work in reverse; instead of lifting her up, it had dropped her in the gutter. Just ride it out, Bob had insisted. Most antidepressants are tough to deal with for a couple of weeks, but when they kick in, they’re miraculous.

I’m still waiting for that miracle, she thought. And then she realized she’d found it. She felt buoyant suddenly, as if the antidepressant was finally doing its job. Three more months. That wasn’t so terrible, was it? Elena was right. There were people with far less time than that, only they didn’t know it.

She let Elena take her upstairs, through Grand Central’s glorious main hall, and put her in a taxi on Forty-Second Street. She gave the driver the address of her rental on Amsterdam Avenue. When she got there, she stood in front of the building, thinking. She didn’t want to go up to that horrible little apartment whose sole virtue was proximity to a cancer-treatment center. Instead, she walked down the block to her parking garage, got her Lexus, and headed north, out of New York City and into the Hudson Valley.

Italy. What a beautiful, crazy, wondrous dream. She knew Colin would never approve, but that didn’t matter. She had her own money, and she didn’t need him to agree to anything. She’d go back to the house, pick up her passport and a few things, tie up any loose ends, and head to the airport. In the back of her mind, she could envision Italy so clearly. There were Rome’s Spanish Steps and Florence’s Duomo and Venice’s St. Mark’s Square. What she didn’t see was herself coming home. What did that matter, anyway? Use the time you have left, she told herself. Use it well.

When she was almost in Tarrytown, she flipped open her phone. She knew it was illegal to make a call while driving, but she couldn’t contain herself anymore, and she called Louise.

“I have the craziest idea,” Sarah said when Louise picked up. “How would you like to come to Italy with me?”

There was a stunned silence on the other end, filled with a little splash of water, as if Louise were in the bath. “Italy?” Louise said. “Sarah, darling, what on earth…?”
“I’m sick of sitting around waiting to die. I’ve decided to make good use of whatever time I have left. And what I want to do is visit Italy.”

“That’s absolutely wonderful,” Louise said. “That’s the best idea I’ve ever heard.”

“I was thinking we could go to Rome and Florence and Venice and everywhere else. A month, maybe.”

“Darling, that would be amazing. But you know I don’t have the money to do that kind of thing.”

“Don’t worry about that. I’ll take care of everything. Just say you’ll go with me.”

“Oh, I don’t know… I’d love to, but I’d feel like I was taking advantage of you. You don’t need the poor relation tagging along.”

“Please. I’ve never traveled anywhere by myself.”

Louise sighed. “You’re very persuasive. Okay, let’s talk about this tomorrow. Shall we have lunch at your place? I’ll pick up a guidebook or two on the way over.”

“Why not now?” Sarah was almost breathless with excitement. I could come over…”

“I was just getting ready for bed. I have a bit of a headache.” There was a brief pause. “Are you feeling quite all right, darling?” Louise’s voice was tight with concern.

“I feel like I’m dreaming,” Sarah admitted. “But it’s been a long time since I felt this good. If it’s a dream, I don’t want it to end.”

When she hung up, Sarah realized the only thing she wasn’t looking forward to was telling Colin her news. She knew he’d stand in front of her, arms crossed, blocking her physically and mentally. She’d do anything to keep him from wrecking her plans. She could almost hear his voice, telling her exactly how stupid she was, and that only a fool would travel in her condition.

There were no lights on at the house when she pulled up in front of it. Maybe she could collect her passport and everything else she needed without encountering Colin? Could her luck be that good? There was no chance he was asleep—it was only eleven at night—but maybe he’d gone out of town. She had a sneaking suspicion that his little jaunts were more about securing female companionship than they were about business, but she didn’t care. She got out of the car and let herself into the house.

When she got inside, she let her eyes adjust to the grey light instead of flipping the switch. Light might dispel the magic of the moment, and that was the last thing she wanted. Why had she ever agreed to move out? She knew the answer: she simply hadn’t been up for a fight. Inside the grand foyer, her eyes settled on the crystal chandelier that had once been her mother’s. She knelt down and felt the fine wool of the gorgeous carpet that had come from Turkey; she’d never been there, but she was glad to have something that had traveled so far. Her world had been too small for too long. Now that she was ready to fly, her chest swelled with happiness. She caught sight of herself in the beautiful gilded mirror that had been her grandmother’s. It was just a dim reflection in the grey light, but it made her smile. She wasn’t someone dying from a rare, incurable disease anymore. She was a woman ready for the adventure of a lifetime.

Then she heard laughter.

It came in little waves from the back of the house. Sarah stepped out of her shoes, half-suspecting she was about to meet a ghost in the near-darkness. But the patio light was on, and she realized the sound had floated in through the screen of the sliding door. Colin was in the hot tub, and he wasn’t alone.

“Can you imagine her wanting me to go to Italy with her? I think she’s lost her mind.”

Sarah’s breath caught in her chest as she recognized Louise’s voice. Only, it wasn’t the sweet, soothing tone she was used to, but something harsh, laced with contempt.

“She’s grasping at straws,” Colin answered. “With any luck, she’ll be dead in a week.”

“I don’t think she will.” Louise’s tone was dark. “I think she’s going to live forever. Like that awful old woman in Ethan Frome.”

“Are you sure you’ve been giving her the right stuff?” Colin asked. “Because I don’t get how she’s still alive. The chemo drugs broke her down. Weed softens up her brain and makes her pliable. And the rest…”

“I know what I’m doing. This isn’t my first rodeo, darling.”

In her discombobulated state, Sarah couldn’t quite process it all at first. Louise… had done this before? Was that how her husband had died?

“I ask her if she takes the vitamins, and she swears she does,” Louise went on. “Either she’s got the constitution of a horse or…” Louise paused and Sarah crept closer to the door, just in time to see Louise drain a crystal flute. It was from Sarah’s own set of wedding china. Colin reached for a champagne bottle in a silver bucket and refilled the glass.

“Maybe it was a mistake to make her move out,” Colin mused. “Everything would’ve been over long ago if she hadn’t.”

“Yes, but I wouldn’t have been able to move in with you, darling,” Louise cooed. “It was so depressing, being in that creepy little house in Queens.”

Sarah stood in the kitchen, watching the two of them kiss. Waves of shock were coursing through her, and yet it was also like watching someone else solve a puzzle for you. Had they poisoned her? How long had the two of them been plotting and planning together?

“Bob doesn’t think she can last much longer,” Colin said.

Bob? Sarah thought. Dr. Bob, Colin’s friend from Harvard? He was in on this, too? Sarah thought of all the sad looks that had passed over his long face over the past year whenever he’d delivered bad news to her. It was always, I’m so sorry to tell you this, Sarah, but… She’d never thought of going to another doctor. Who’d give her better care than Dr. Bob would?

“I’m just so sick of waiting,” Louise whined. “This is taking forever. At least my pathetic excuse for a husband had the good grace to die quickly.”

“Which is why we need to be careful,” Colin said. “If Sarah died suddenly and I inherit her money and immediately marry you, that’s going to look suspicious, especially with your own husband dead for only a few months.”

“I know.” Louise sounded petulant. “But waiting is driving me mad, darling.”

“Well, we shouldn’t have to wait too much longer. Bob prescribed an antidepressant that will make her suicidal. This Italy thing is just a crazy last-ditch fantasy. She’ll probably jump out a window in the next day or two.”

That was all Sarah could listen to. Her mind was humming with questions, neurons ping-ponging from timelines to jagged fragments of fact and half-remembered conversations. So many little things had seemed off, yet she’d never put it together. None of it matters anymore, she told herself. With surprisingly steady hands, Sarah picked up the radio from the counter. It was on a long extension cord, because Colin used to love bringing it outside and listening to music under the stars. Or maybe he only longed to drown Sarah out. She checked that it was plugged in. It was.

Both Colin and Louise half-turned when they heard the screen door slide open.

“I think you should know,” Sarah said, stepping forward with the slow grace of a sleepwalker while they sat with slack jaws, “I’ve decided to go to Italy by myself.”

She threw the radio into the hot tub. She imagined sparks flying from it like lightning bolts and spearing her faithless husband and cousin. But nothing like that happened. Louise shrieked and thrashed in the water, screeching, “Get it out! Get it out!” But Colin was calm, getting to his feet and shaking his head.

“You crazy bitch,” he said. “You thought you could electrocute us? That only works if you complete the circuit…”

Louise screamed. She’d grabbed the radio, but instead of forcing it out of the water, she’d instantly become the conduit for the electric current. Her head snapped back, but she couldn’t let go. Colin tried to knock the radio out of her hands, but the contact sent electricity coursing through him as well. The pair thrashed in the water, with Colin falling back and hitting his head, before disappearing under the surface of the water. Louise tumbled back into a seated position, eyes wide open but fixed on nothing. The radio floated out of her hands and bobbed on the surface of the water.

Sarah watched Louise’s lifeless face, counting to a hundred, and then two hundred, while she waited for Colin to resurface. When his body failed to do that, she retreated into the house, leaving the screen open. Without turning on a light, she went upstairs, extracting her passport and some cash from the desk in her little den. She wouldn’t pack anything, she decided. She could get whatever she needed when she landed in Rome.

When she slipped behind the wheel of her car, she looked at herself in the mirror and slipped off her headscarf. Her head was covered in pale fuzz like a peach or a newborn. How sick was she really? She had no idea anymore. Some of the autoimmune illnesses predated her marriage, so she knew it wasn’t all a murderous mirage. But someone other than Dr. Bob would have to investigate that one day. She’d had enough of doctors and sickbeds for one lifetime. What would happen to her without needles injecting poison into her veins and drugs to cloud her mind?

“Enjoy yourself. Enjoy every day you have,” she told her reflection.

She pulled out of the driveway and headed back to the highway. John F. Kennedy Airport was less than an hour away. For the first time in a long while, she had something to look forward to.


More stories from Hilary Davidson