Shirley hadn't worked a crossword puzzle in over five years. It wasn't because she didn't want to. Her mother, Lizbeth, had instilled in her a love for the New York Times crosswords from the time she was twelve. Solving the puzzle together over coffee and scones was one of her favorite memories of her mother.
The Times sat on the table, lonely. Shirley sipped her coffee. It was getting cold. As cold as the winter outside. From thirty stories up, the snowflakes looked like the ones in the globe her aunt had given her for Christmas one year. It had broken when she threw it at Jack. Jerk, she thought. He just didn't understand the changes that had occurred. Didn't understand and didn't care. The divorce was over four years ago, now. She pushed thoughts of him from her mind.
Shirley stared at the newspaper. She didn't want to open it up. She didn't want the disappointment, another horrific responsibility. But she couldn't run from it. She had discovered this truth the hard way. At first, she had cancelled her subscription. It still came. Then, she tried bundling them up and dumping them in the recycling over thirty blocks away. They showed up on her doorstep, the twine still in place. Frustrated, she then tried to burn them, thinking that the worst case scenario would be that it would help heat her six hundred square foot apartment. Within hours, a new one would be at her doorstep. Her last attempt was to use them to line Biscuit's litter box. Her cat refused to use it anymore. That had been the last straw.
No matter. For the past five years, the crossword puzzle in the Times had been her life. Not doing it, understand. Deciphering it. Reading it like tea leaves to discover her destiny, her responsibility. Her only respite was on weekends. Saturday and Sunday, for some reason, she was allowed to live her life normally. Whatever that meant.
She sighed. She wasn't prepared to do this again today. Her apartment was in shambles. The duty of her curse had led her to become a hermit. The meager income she received from her alimony and the trickle of money from her mother's trust fund were all that she had to live. She hugged herself closely, and petted Biscuit as she made her way onto her lap to steal the crumbs from the almond and honey scone.
Having had enough of self-pity and reflection, Shirley reached for the paper. It was inevitable, inexorable. She couldn't resist, so why try? Resigned, she flipped to the social section and discarded the rest on the floor near the table. Biscuit jumped down and retreated to the dingy, unmade bed. It was time for Shirley to face her responsibilities, even if she didn't understand why.
As she turned to the crossword section, so familiar and drawing such mixed emotions, she read it. There in the morning crossword, plain as anything, was the phrase "ROGER PETERSON HAS TWO WEEKS TO LIVE." She took a bite of her scone.
Biscuit let out a lonesome mewl. She knew Shirley had to leave now. Two weeks was a long time. Plenty of time. More time than she had Thursday when Vivian Mahoney had had four hours to live. It was just lucky that the subway entrance was only two blocks from her apartment. But, the burning question was who was Roger Peterson? And how exactly was Shirley supposed to keep him alive? And, perhaps, more importantly, why?
For two of these three questions answers would be revealed as she researched and found poor Roger. But, for the past five years she had never discovered why. Shirley picked up the crossword and carefully ripped it from the newspaper. She put it in the front of her trousers. She poured some food in Biscuit's bowl, lifted the lid on the toilet, turned on the electric heater, grabbed her coat, her purse, and her keys, and then left the apartment, headed to the closest library.