M I CHAEL
Before you can go into a prison, you're stripped of the trappings that make you you. Take off your shoes, your belt. Remove your wallet, your watch, your saint's medal. Loose change in your pockets, cell phone, even the crucifix pin on your lapel. Hand over your driver's license to the uniformed officer, and in return, you become one of the faceless people who has entered a place the residents aren't allowed to leave.
"Father?" an officer said. "Are you okay?"
I tried to smile and nod, imagining what he saw: a big tough guy who was shaking at the thought of entering this prison. Sure, I rode a
Triumph Trophy, volunteered to work with gang youth, and broke the stereotype of a priest any chance I got-but inside here was the man whose life I had voted to end.
Ever since I had taken my vows and asked God to help me offset what I had done to one man with what I might yet be able to do for others-I knew this would happen one day. I knew I'd wind up face-toface with Shay Bourne.
Would he recognize me?
Would I recognize hurt?
I walked through the metal detector, holding my breath, as if I had something to hide. And I suppose I did, but my secrets wouldn't set off those alarms. I started to weave my belt into the loops of my trousers again, to tie the laces of my Converse sneakers. My hands were still trembling. "Father Michael?" I glanced up to find another officer waiting for me. "Warden Coyne's expecting you."
"Right." I followed the officer through dull gray hallways. When we passed inmates, the officer pivoted his body so that he stood between us-a shield.
I was delivered to an administrative office that overlooked the interior courtyard of the state prison. A conga line of prisoners was walking from one building to another. Behind them was a double line of fencing, capped with razor wire.
The warden was a stocky man with silver hair who offered a handshake and a grimace that was supposed to pass for a smile. "Warden
Coyne. Nice to meet you."
He led me into his private office, a surprisingly modem, airy space with no desk-just a long, spare steel table with files and notes spread across it. As soon as he sat down, he unwrapped a piece of gum. "Nicorette," he explained. "My wife's making me quit smoking and to be honest, I'd rather cut off my left arm." He opened a file with a number on its side-Shay Bourne had been stripped of his name in here as well. "I do appreciate you coming. We're a little short on chaplains right now."
The prison had one full-time chaplain, an Episcopal priest who had flown to Australia to be with his dying father. Which meant that if an inmate requested to speak to a clergyman, one of the locals would be called in.
"It's my pleasure," I lied, and mentally marked the rosary I'd say later as penance.
He pushed the file toward me. "Shay Bourne. You know him?"
I hesitated. "Who doesn't?"
"Yeah, the news coverage is a bitch, pardon my French. I could do without all the attention. Bottom line is the inmate wants to donate his organs after execution."
"Catholics support organ donation, as long as the patient is braindead and no longer breathing by himself," I said.
Apparently, it was the wrong answer. Coyne lifted up a tissue. frowned, and spit his gum into it. "Yeah, great, I get it. That's the party line. But the reality of the situation is that this guy's at the twenty-third hour. He's a convicted murderer, two times over. You think he's suddenly developed a humanitarian streak... or is it more likely that he's trying to gain public sympathy and stop his execution?"
"Maybe he just wants something good to come out of his death..."
"Lethal injection is designed to stop the inmate's heart," Coyne said flatly.
I had helped a parishioner earlier this year when she made the decision to donate her son's organs after a motorcycle accident that had left him brain-dead. Brain death, the doctor had explained, was different from cardiac death. Her son was still irrevocably gone-he would not eventually recover, like people in a coma-but thanks to the respirator, his heart was still beating. If cardiac death had occurred, the organs wouldn't be viable for transplant.
I sat back in the chair. "Warden Coyne, I was under the impression that Inmate Bourne had requested a spiritual advisor..."
"He did. And we'd like you to advise him against this crazy idea."
The warden sighed. "Look, I know what this must sound like to you.
But Bourne's going to be executed by the state. That's a fact. Either it can become a sideshow... or it can be done with discretion." He stared at me. "Are we clear on what you need to do?"
"Crystal," I said quietly.
I had once before let myself be led by others, because I assumed they knew more than me. Jim, another juror, had used the "eye for an eye" line from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount to convince me that repaying a death with a death was just. But now, I understood that Jesus had actually been saying the opposite-criticizing those who let the punishment compound the crime.
No way was I going to let Warden Coyne tell me how to advise
In that instant, I realized that if Bourne didn't recognize me, I wasn't going to tell him I'd met him before. This wasn't about my salvation; it was about his. And even if I'd been instrumental in ruining his life, now-as a priest-it was my job to redeem him.
"I'd like to meet Mr. Bourne," I said.
The warden nodded. "I figured." He stood up and led me back through the administrative offices. We took a turn and came to a control booth, a set of double-barred doors. The warden raised his hand and the officer inside unlocked the first steel door with a buzz and a sound of metal scraping metal. We stepped into the midchamber, and that same door automatically sealed.
So this was what it felt like to be locked in.
Before I could begin to panic, the interior door buzzed open, and we walked along another corridor. "You ever been in here?" the warden asked.
"You get used to it."
I looked around at the cinder-block walls, the rusting catwalks. "I doubt that."
We stepped through a fire door marked I-TIER. "This is where we keep the most hard-core inmates," Coyne said. "I can't promise they'll be on their best behavior."
In the center of the room was a control tower. A young officer sat there, watching a television monitor that seemed to have a bird's-eye view of the inside of the pod. It was quiet, or maybe the door that led inside was soundproof.
I walked up to the door and peered inside. There was an empty shower stall closest to me, then eight cells. I could not see the faces of the men and wasn't sure which one was Bourne. "This is Father Michael," the warden said. "He's come to speak with Inmate Bourne." He reached into a bin and handed me a flak jacket and protective goggles, as if I were going to war instead of death row.
"You can't go in unless you've got the right equipment," the warden said.
"Well, where'd you think you were going to meet Inmate Bourne,
I had thought there would be some kind of... room, I guess. Or the chapel. Til be alone with him? In a cell?"
"Hell, no," Warden Coyne said. "You stand out on the catwalk and talk through the door."
Taking a deep breath, I slipped the jacket on over my clothes and fitted the goggles to my face. Then I winged a quick prayer and nodded.
"Open up," Warden Coyne said to the young officer.
"Yes, sir," the kid said, clearly flustered to be under Coyne's regard.
He glanced down at the control panel before him, a myriad display of buttons and lights, and pushed one near his left hand, only to realize at the last minute it was the wrong choice. The doors of all eight cells opened at once.
"Ohmygod," the boy said, his eyes wide as saucers, as the warden shoved me out of the way and began punching a series of levers and buttons on the control panel.
"Get him out of here," the warden yelled, jerking his head in my direction.
Over the loudspeaker came his radio call: Multiple inmates released on I-tier; need officer assistance immediately.
I stood, riveted, as the inmates spilled out of their respective cells like poison. And then... well... all hell broke loose.
When the doors released in unison, like all the strings tuning up in an orchestra and magically hitting the right note the first time the bow was raised, I didn't run out of the cell like the others. I stopped for a beat, paralyzed by freedom.
I quickly tucked my painting beneath the mattress of the bunk and stashed my ink in a roll of dirty laundry. I could hear Warden Coyne's voice on the loudspeakers, calling over the radio for the SWAT team. This had happened only once before when I was in prison; a new officer screwed up and two cells were opened simultaneously. The inmate who'd been accidentally freed rushed into the other's cell and cracked his skull open against the sink, a gang hit that had been waiting for years to come to pass.
Crash was the first one out of his cell. He ran past mine with his fist curled around a shank, making a beeline for Joey Kunz-a child molester was fair game for anyone. Pogie and Texas followed him like the dogs they were. "Grab him, boys," Crash hollered. "Let's just cut it right off."
Joey's voice escalated as he was cornered. "For God's sake, someone help!"
There was the sound of a fist hitting flesh, of Calloway swearing. By now, he was in Joey's cell, too.
"Lucius?" I heard, a slow ribbon of a voice, as if it had come from underwater, and I remembered that Joey wasn't the only one on the tier who'd hurt a child. If Joey was Crash's first victim, Shay could very well be the second.
There were people outside the prison praying to Shay; there were reli gious pundits on TV who promised hell and damnation to those who worshipped a false messiah. I didn't know what Shay was or wasn't, but I credited him for my health one hundred percent. And there was something about him that just didn't fit in here, that made you stop and look twice, as if you'd come across an orchid growing in a ghetto.
"Stay where you are," I called out. "Shay, you hear me?"
But he didn't answer. I stood at the threshold of my cell, trembling. I stared at that invisible line between here and now, no and yes, if and when.
With one deep breath, I stepped outside.
Shay was not in his cell; he was moving slowly toward Joey's. Through the door of I-tier, I could see the officers suiting up in flak jackets and shields and masks. There was someone else, too-a priest I'd never seen before.
I reached for Shay's arm to stop him. That's all, just that small heat, and it nearly brought me to my knees. Here in prison we did not touch; we were not touched. I could have held on to Shay, at the innocent crook of his elbow, forever.
But Shay turned, and I remembered the first unwritten rule of being in prison: you did not invade someone's space. I let go. "It's okay," Shay said softly, and he took another step toward Joey's cell.
Joey was spread-eagled on the floor, sobbing, his pants pulled down.
His head was twisted away, and blood streamed from his nose. Pogie had one of his arms, Texas the other; Calloway sat on his fighting feet. From this angle, they were obscured from the view of the officers who were mobilizing to subdue everyone. "You heard of Save the Children?" Crash said, brandishing his homemade blade. "I'm here to make a donation."
Just then, Shay sneezed.
"God bless," Crash said automatically.
Shay wiped his nose on his sleeve. "Thanks."
The interruption made Crash lose some of his momentum. He glanced out at the army on the other side of the door, screaming commands we couldn't hear. He rocked back on his heels and surveyed Joey, shivering against the cement floor.
"Let him go," Crash said.
"Let him...?" Calloway echoed.
"You heard me. All of you. Go back."
Pogie and Texas listened; they always did what Crash said. Calloway was slower to leave. "We ain't done here," he said to Joey, but then he left.
"What the fuck are you waiting for?" Crash said to me, and I hurried back to my own cell, forgetting entirely anyone else's welfare except my own.
I do not know what it was that led to Crash's change of plan-if it was knowing that the officers would storm the tier and punish him; if it was
Shay's well-timed sneeze; if it was a prayer- God bless- on the lips of a sinner like Crash. But by the time the SWAT team entered seconds later, all seven of us were sitting in our cells even though the doors were still wide open, as if we were angels, as if we had nothing to hide.
There's a flower I can see from the exercise yard. Well, I can't realiy see it-
I have to sort of hook my fingers on the ledge of the only window and spider-walk up the cement wall, but I can glimpse it then before I fall back down. It's a dandelion, which you might think is a weed, but it can be put into salads or soups. The root can be ground up and used as a coffee substitute.
The juices can get rid of warts or be used as an insect repellent. I learned all this from a Mother Earth News magazine piece that I keep wrapped around my treasures-my shank, my Q-tips, the tiny Visine bottles where I keep the ink I manufacture. I read the article every time I take my supplies out for inventory, which is daily. I keep my cache behind a loosened cinder block beneath my cot, refilling the mortar with Metamucil and toothpaste, mixed, so that the officers don't get suspicious when they toss the cell.
I never gave it much thought before I came in here, but I wish I knew more about horticulture. I wish I'd taken the time to learn what makes things grow. Hell, if I had, maybe I could have started a water melon plant from a seedling. Maybe I'd have vines hanging all over the place by now.
Adam had the green thumb in our household. I used to find him outside at the crack of dawn, rooting around in the dirt between our daylilies and sedums. The weeds shall inherit the earth, he had said.
Meek, I'd corrected. The meek shall inherit it.
No way, Adam had said, and laughed. The weeds will blow right by them.
He used to say that if you picked a dandelion, two would grow back in its place. I guess they are the botanical equivalent of the men in this prison. Take one of us off the street, and more will sprout up in his wake.
With Crash back in solitary, and Joey in the infirmary, I-tier was oddly quiet. In the wake of Joey's beating, our privileges had been suspended, so all showers and exercise yard visits were canceled for the day. Shay was pacing. Earlier, he'd been complaining that his teeth were vibrating with the air-conditioning unit; sometimes sounds got to be too much for him- usually when he was agitated. "Lucius," he said. "Did you see that priest today?"
"Do you think he came for me?"
I didn't want to give him false hope. "I don't know, Shay. Maybe someone was dying on another tier and needed last rites."
"The dead aren't alive, and the living don't die."
I laughed. "Thanks for that, Yoda."
He was talking crazy, the way Crash had a year ago when he'd started to peel the lead paint from the cinder blocks and eat it, hoping it would serve as a hallucinogen. "Well, if there is a heaven, I bet it's full of dandelions."
(Actually, I think heaven's full of guys who look like Wentworth Miller from Prison Break, but for right now, I was only talking landscaping.)
"Heaven's not a place."
"I didn't say it had map coordinates..."
"If it was in the sky, then birds would get there before you. If it was under the sea, fish would be first."
"Then where is it?" I asked.
"It's inside you," Shay said, "and outside, too."
If he wasn't eating the lead paint, then he'd been making hooch I didn't know about. "If this is heaven, I'll take a rain check."
"You can't wait for it, because it's already here."
"Well, you're the only one of us who got rose-colored glasses when he was booked, I guess."
Shay was silent for a while. "Lucius," he asked finally. "Why did Crash go after Joey instead of me?"
I didn't know. Crash was a convicted murderer; I had no doubt he could and would kill again if given the opportunity. Technically, both Joey and
Shay had sinned equally in Crash's code of justice; they had harmed children.
Maybe Crash figured Joey would be easier to kill. Maybe Shay had gained a modicum of respect through his miracles. Maybe he'd just gotten lucky.
Maybe even Crash thought there was something special about Shay.
"He's not any different than Joey..." Shay said.
"Teensy suggestion? Don't let Crash hear you say that."
"... and we're not any different than Crash," he finished. "You don't know what would make you do what Crash did, just like you didn't know what would make you kill Adam, until it happened."
I drew in my breath. No one in prison talked about another person's crime, even if you secretly believed they were guilty. But I had killed Adam.
It was my hand holding the gun; it was his blood on my clothes. It wasn't what had been done that was at issue for me in court; it was why.
"It's okay to not know something," Shay said. "That's what makes us human."
No matter what Mr. Philosopher Next Door thought, there were things I knew for sure: That I had been loved, once, and had loved back.
That a person could find hope in the way a weed grew. That the sum of a man's life was not where he wound up but in the details that brought him there.
That we made mistakes.
I closed my eyes, sick of the riddles, and to my surprise all I could see were dandelions-as if they had been painted on the fields of my imagination, a hundred thousand suns. And I remembered something else that makes us human: faith, the only weapon in our arsenal to battle doubt.
They say God won't give you any more than you can handle, but that begs a more important question: why would God let you surfer in the first place?
"No comment," I said into the phone, and I slammed down the receiver loud enough that Claire-on the couch with her iPod on-sat up and took notice. I reached beneath the table and yanked out the cord completely so that I would not have to hear the phone ring.
They had been calling all morning; they had set up camp outside my home. How does it feel to know that there are protesters outside the prison, hoping to free the man who murdered your child and your husband?
Do you think Shay Bourne's request to be an organ donor is a way to make up for what he's done?
What I thought was that nothing Shay Bourne could do or say would ever make up for the lives of Elizabeth and Kurt. I knew firsthand how well he could lie and what might come of it-this was nothing more than some publicity stunt to make everyone feel badly for him, because after a decade, who even remembered feeling badly for that police officer, that little girl?
There are people who say that the death penalty isn't just because it takes so long to execute a man. That it's inhumane to have to wait eleven years or more for punishment. That at least for Elizabeth and Kurt, death came quickly.
Let me tell you what's wrong with that line of reasoning: it assumes that Elizabeth and Kurt were the only victims. It leaves out me; it leaves out Claire. And I can promise you that every day for the last eleven years I've thought of what I lost at the hands of
Shay Bourne. I've been anticipating his death just as long as he has.
I heard voices coming from the living room and realized that
Claire had turned on the television. A grainy photograph of Shay
Bourne filled the screen. It was the same photo that had been used in the newspapers, although Claire would not have seen those, since I'd thrown them out immediately. Bourne's hair was cut short now, and there were parenthetical lines around his mouth and fanning from the corners of his eyes, but he otherwise did not look any different.
"That's him, isn't it?" Claire asked.
God, Complex? read the caption beneath the photograph.
"Yes." I walked toward the television, intentionally blocking her view, and turned it off.
Claire looked up at me. "I remember him," she said.
I sighed. "Honey, you weren't even bom yet."
She unfolded the afghan that sat on the couch and wrapped it around her shoulders, as if she'd suddenly taken a chill. "I remember him," Claire repeated.