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TREASURED HUSBAND.


Kurt had bought his plot after we'd been married for a year.

That's macabre, I had said, and he had just shrugged it off; he saw the business of death and dying every day. Here's the thing, though, he had said. There's room for you, if you want.

He had not wanted to impose, because he didn't know if I'd want to be buried near my first husband. Even that tiny bit of consideration-the fact that he wanted me to choose, instead of making an assumption-had made me realize why I loved him. I want to be with you, I had told him. I wanted to be where my heart was.

After the murders, I would sleepwalk. I'd find myself the next morning in the gardening shed, holding a spade. In the garage, with my face pressed against the metal cheek of a shovel. In my subconscious, I was making plans to join them; it was only when I was awake and alert and felt Claire kicking me from within that I realized I had to stay.

Would she be the next one I'd bury here? And once I did, what would keep me from carrying things through to their natural conclusion, from putting my family back together in one place?

I lay down for a minute, prone on the grass. I pressed my face into the stubbled moss at the edge of the headstone and pretended

I was cheek-to-cheek with my husband; I felt the dandelions twine through my fingers and pretended I was holding my daughter's hand.

In the elevator of the hospital, the duffel bag started to move itself across the floor. I crouched down, unzipped the top of it. "Good boy," I said, and patted the top of Dudley's head. I'd retrieved him from my neighbor, who had been kind enough to play foster parent while Claire was sick. Dudley had fallen asleep in the car, but now he was alert and wondering why I had zipped him into a piece of luggage. The doors opened and I hoisted him up, approaching the nurse's desk near Claire's room. I tried to smile normally.

"Everything all right?"

"She's been sleeping like a baby."

Just then, Dudley barked.

The nurse's eyes flew up to mine, and I pretended to sneeze.

"Wow," I said, shaking my head. "Is that pollen count something or what?"

Before she could respond, I hurried into Claire's room and closed the door behind me. Then I unzipped the bag and Dudley shot out like a rocket. He ran a lap around the room, nearly knocking over Claire's IV pole.

There was a reason dogs weren't allowed in hospitals, but if

Claire wanted normal, then she was going to get it. I wrapped my arms around Dudley and hoisted him onto Claire's bed, where he sniffed the cotton blanket and began to lick her hand.

Her eyes fluttered open, and when she saw the dog, a smile split her face. "He's not allowed in here," she whispered, burying her hands in the fur at his neck.

"Are you going to tell on me?"

Claire pushed herself to a sitting position and let the dog crawl into her lap. She scratched behind his ears while he tried to chew on the wire that ran from beneath Claire's hospital gown to the heart monitor.

"We won't have a lot of time," I said quickly. "Someone's going to-"

Just then, a nurse walked in holding a digital thermometer.

"Rise and shine, missy," she began, and then she saw the dog on the bed. "What is that doing in here?"

I looked at Claire, and then back at the nurse. "Visiting?" I suggested.

"Mrs. Nealon, not even service dogs are allowed onto this ward without a letter from the vet stating that the vaccinations are up to date and the stool's tested negative for parasites-"

"I was just trying to make Claire feel better. He won't leave this room, I swear."

"I'll give you five minutes," the nurse said. "But you have to promise you won't bring him in again before the transplant."

Claire, who had a death grip on the dog, glanced up. "Transplant?" she repeated. "What transplant?"

"She was being theoretical," I said quickly.

"Dr. Wu doesn't schedule theoretical transplants," the nurse said.

Claire blinked at me. "Mom?" There was a thread in her voice that had started to unravel.

The nurse turned on her heel. "I'm counting," she said, and left the room.

"Is it true?" Claire asked. "There's a heart for me?"

"We're not sure. There's a catch..."

"There's always a catch," Claire said. "I mean, how many hearts have turned out to not be as great as Dr. Wu expected?"

"Well, this one... it's not ready for transplant yet. It's sort of still being used."

Claire laughed a little. "What are you planning to do? Kill someone?"

I didn't answer.

"Is the donor really sick, or old? How could she even be a donor if she's sick or old?" Claire asked.

"Honey," I said. "We have to wait for the donor to be executed."

Claire was not stupid. I watched her put together this new information with what she'd heard on television. Her hands tightened on Dudley. "No way," she said quietly. "I am not taking a heart from the guy who killed my father and my sister."

"He wants to give it to you. He offered."

"This is sick," Claire said. "You're sick." She struggled to get up, but she was tethered to the bed with tubes and wires.

"Even Dr. Wu said that it's an amazing match for you and your body. I couldn't just say no."

"What about me? Don't I get to say no?"

"Claire, baby, you know donors don't come along every day. I had to do it."

"Then undo it," she demanded. "Tell them I don't want his stupid heart."

I sank down on the edge of the hospital bed. "It's just a muscle.

It doesn't mean you'll be like him." I paused. "And besides, he owes this to us."

"He doesn't owe us anything! Why don't you get that?" Her eyes filled with tears. "You can't tie the score, Mom. You just have to start over."

Her monitors began to sound an alert; her pulse was rising, her heart pumping too hard. Dudley began to bark. "Claire, you have to calm down..."

"This isn't about him," Claire said. "This isn't even about me.

It's about you. You need to get payment for what happened to Elizabeth.

You need to make him pay for what he did. Where do I fit into that?"

The nurse flew into the room like a great white heron, fussing over Claire. "What's going on in here?" she said, checking the connections and tubes and drips.

"Nothing," we both said simultaneously.

The nurse gave me a measured glance. "I highly recommend you take that dog away and let Claire get some rest."

I reached for Dudley and wrestled him back into the duffel bag. "Just think about it," I pleaded.

Ignoring me, Claire reached into the bag and patted the dog.

"Good-bye," she whispered.


ALIVE AND KICKING ON I-TIER. | Change of heart | M I CHAEL