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M I CHAEL

I had gone back to St. Catherine's. I told Father Walter that I had not been seeing clearly, and that God had opened my eyes to the truth.

I just neglected to mention that God happened to be sitting on I-tier about three miles away from our church, awaiting an expedited trial that began this week.

Each night, I said three consecutive rosaries-penance for lying to

Father Walter-but I had to be there. I had to do something constructive with my time, now that I wasn't spending it with Shay. Since I'd confessed to him at the hospital that I'd served on the jury that had convicted him, he'd refused to see me.

There was a part of me that understood his reaction-imagine how it would feel to know your confidant had betrayed you-but there was another part of me that spent hours trying to figure out why divine forgiveness hadn't kicked in yet. Then again, if the Gospel of Thomas was to be believed, no matter how much time and space Shay put between us, we were never really separate: mankind and divinity were flip sides of the same coin.

And so, every day at noon, I told Father Walter I was meeting a fictional couple at their house to try to guide them away from the path of divorce. But instead, I rode my Trophy to the prison, burrowed through the crowds, and went inside to try to see Shay.

CO Whitaker was called to escort me to I-tier after I'd passed through the metal detectors at the visitor's booth. "Hi, Father. You here to sell Girl Scout cookies?"

"You know it," I replied. "Anything exciting happen today?"


"Let's see. Joey Kunz got a medical visit for diarrhea."

"Wow," I said. "Sorry I missed that."

As I suited up in my flak jacket, Whitaker went into I-tier to tell

Shay I'd come. Again. But no more than five seconds had passed before he returned, a sheepish look on his face. "Not today. Father," he said.

"Sorry."

"I'll try again," I replied, but we both knew that wasn't possible.

We had run out of time: Shay's trial began tomorrow.

I left the prison and walked back to my motorcycle. All modesty aside, I was the closest thing Shay had to a disciple; and if that was true, it meant learning from the mistakes of history. At Jesus's crucifixion.

His followers had scattered-except for Mary Magdalene, and his mother. So even if Shay didn't acknowledge me in court, I would still be there. I would bear witness for him.

For a long time, I sat on my bike in the parking lot, going nowhere.

In fairness, it wasn't like I wanted to spring this all on Maggie a few days before the trial. The truth of the matter was that if Shay didn't want me as his spiritual advisor anymore, I had no excuse for not telling

Maggie that I'd been on the jury that convicted him. I'd tried to contact her several times over the past week, but she was either out of her office, not at home, or not answering her cell. And then, out of the blue, she called me. "Get your ass down here," she said. "You have some explaining to do."

In twenty minutes, I was sitting in her ACLU office. "I had a meeting with Shay today," Maggie said. "He said you'd lied to him."

I nodded. "Did he go into detail?"

"No. He said I deserved to hear it firsthand." She crossed her arms.

"He also said he didn't want you testifying on his behalf."

"Right," I mumbled. "I don't blame him."

"Are you really a priest?"

I blinked at her. "Of course I am-"

"Then I don't care what you're lying about," Maggie said. "You can unburden your soul after we win Shay's case."

"It's not that simple..."

"Yes it is. Father. You are the only character witness we've got for

Shay; you're credible because you're wearing that collar. I don't care if you and Shay had a fight; I don't care if you moonlight as a drag queen;

I don't care if you have enough secrets to last a lifetime. It's don't ask, don't tell until the trial starts, okay? All I care about is that you wear that collar, get on the stand, and make Shay sound like a saint. If you walk, the whole case goes down the toilet. Is that simple enough for you?"

If Maggie was right-if my testimony was the only thing that would help Shay-then how could I tell her something now that would ruin the case? A sin of omission could be understandable if you were helping someone by holding back. I could not give Shay his life back, but I could make sure his death was what he wanted.

Maybe it would be enough for him to forgive me.

"It's normal to be a little freaked out about going to court," Maggie said, misreading my silence.

During my testimony, I was supposed to explain in layman's terms how donating a heart to Claire Nealon was one of Shay's spiritual beliefs.

Having a priest say this was a stroke of genius on Maggie's part- who wouldn't believe a member of the clergy when it came to religion?

"You don't have to be worried about the cross-exam," Maggie continued.

"You tell the judge that while a Catholic would believe that salvation comes solely through Jesus Christ, Shay believes organ donation's necessary for redemption. That's perfectly true, and I can promise you that lightning isn't going to crash through the ceiling when you say it."

My head snapped up. "I can't tell the court that Shay will find

Jesus," I said. "I think he might be Jesus."

She blinked. "You think what?"

The words began to spill out of me, the way I always imagined it felt to be speaking in tongues: truths that tumbled before you even realized they'd left your mouth. "It makes perfect sense. The age, the profession.

The fact that he's on death row. The miracles. And the heart donation-he's literally giving himself away for our sins, again. He's giving the part that matters the least-the body-in order to become whole in spirit."

"This is way worse than having cold feet," Maggie murmured.

"You're crazy."

"Maggie, he's been quoting a gospel that was written two hundred years after Christ's death-a gospel that most people don't even know exists. Word for word."

Tve listened to his words, and frankly, they're unintelligible. Do you know what he was doing yesterday when I briefed him on his testimony?

Playing tic-tac-toe. With himself."

"You have to read between the lines."

"Yeah, right. And I bet when you listen to Britney Spears records backward, you hear 'Sleep with me, I'm not too young.' For God's sake-no pun intended-you're a Catholic priest. Whatever happened to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? I don't remember Shay being part of the Trinity."

"What about everyone camped outside the prison? Are they all crazy, too?"

"They want Shay to cure their kid's autism or reverse their husband's

Alzheimer's. They're in it for themselves," Maggie said. "The only people who think Shay Bourne is the Messiah are so desperate that they'd be able to find salvation beneath the lid of a two-liter bottle of Pepsi."

"Or through a heart transplant?" I countered. "You've worked up a whole legal theory based on individual religious beliefs. So how can you tell me, categorically, that I'm wrong?"

"Because it's not a matter of right or wrong. It's life or death- namely. Shay's. I'd say whatever I had to to win this case for him; it's my job. And it was supposed to be yours, too. This isn't about some revelation; it's not about who Shay might have been or might be in the future. It's about who he is right now: a convicted murderer who's going to be executed unless I can do something about it. It doesn't matter to me if he's a vagrant or Queen Elizabeth or Jesus Christ-it just matters that we win this case for him, so that he can die on his own terms. That means that you will get on that damn stand and swear on that Bible-which, for all I know, might not even be relevant to you now that you've found Jesus on I-tier. And if you screw this up for Shay by sounding like a nut job when I question you, I will make your life miserable." By the time Maggie finished, she was red in the face and breathless. This old gospel," she said. "Word for word?"

I nodded.

"How did you find out about it?"

"From your father," I said.

Maggie's brows rose. "I'm not putting a priest and a rabbi on the stand. The judge will be waiting for a punch line."

I looked up at her. "I have an idea."

Maggie

In the client-attorney conference room outside I-tier, Shay climbed on the chair and started talking to flies. "Go left," he urged as he craned his neck toward the air vent. "Come on. You can do it."

I looked up from my notes for a moment. "Are they pets?"

"No," Shay said, stepping down from the chair. His hair was matted, but only on the left side, which made him look absentminded at best and mentally ill at worst. I wondered what I could say to convince him to let me brush it before we went out in front of the judge tomorrow.

The flies were circling. "I have a pet rabbit," I said.

"Last week, before I was moved to I-tier, I had pets," Shay said, then shook his head. "It wasn't last week. It was yesterday. I can't remember."

"It doesn't matter-"

"What's its name?"

"Sorry?"

"The rabbit."

"Oliver," I said, and took out of my pocket what I'd been holding for

Shay. "I brought you a gift."

He smiled at me, his eyes piercing and suddenly focused. "I hope it's a key."

"Not quite." I passed him a Snack Pack butterscotch pudding. "I figured you don't get the good stuff in prison."

He opened the foil top, licked it, and then carefully folded it into his breast pocket. "Is there butter in it?"

"I don't know."

"What about Scotch?"

I smiled. "I truly doubt it."

"Too bad."

I watched him take the first bite. "Tomorrows going to be a big day,"

I said.

In the wake of Michael's crisis of faith, I had contacted the witness he recommended-an academic named Ian Fletcher whom I vaguely remembered from a television show he used to host, where he'd go around debunking the claims of people who saw the Virgin Mary in their toast burn pattern and things like that. At first, putting him on the stand seemed to be a sure way to lose a case-but the guy had a PhD from the

Princeton Theological Seminary, and there had to be some merit in putting a former atheist on the stand. If Fletcher could be convinced there was a God-be it Jesus, Allah, Yahweh, Shay, or none of the above-then surely any of us could.

Shay finished his pudding and handed the empty cup back to me. "I need the foil, too," I said. The last thing I wanted was to find out a few days from now that Shay had fashioned a shank out of the aluminum and hurt himself or someone else. He took it out of his pocket meekly and handed it back to me. "You do know what's happening tomorrow, right?"

"Don't you?"

"Well. About the trial," I began, "all you have to do is sit patiently and listen. A lot of what you'll hear probably won't make sense to you."

He looked up. "Are you nervous?"

I was nervous, all right-and not just because this was a high-profile death penalty case that might or might not have found a constitutional loophole. I lived in a country where 85 percent of the residents called themselves Christians and about half went regularly to some form of church-religion was not about the individual to the average American; it was about the community of believers, and my whole case was about to turn that on its ear. "Shay," I said. "You understand that we might lose."

Shay nodded, dismissive. "Where is she?"

"Who?"

'The girl. The one who needs the heart."

"She's in the hospital."

"Then we have to hurry," he said.

I exhaled slowly. "Right. I'd better go get my game face on."

I stood up, summoning the CO to let me out of the conference room, but Shay's voice called me back. "Don't forget to say you're sorry," he said.

"To whom?"

By then, though, Shay was standing on the chair again, his attention focused on something else. And as I watched, seven flies landed in quick succession on the palm of his outstretched hand.

When I was five, all I wanted was a Christmas tree. My friends had them, and the menorah we lit at night paled in comparison. My father pointed out that we got eight presents, but my friends got even more than that, if you added up what was sitting underneath their tree. One cold December afternoon, my mother told my father we were heading to the movies, and instead, she drove me to the mall. We waited in line with little girls who had ribbons in their hair and fancy lace dresses, so that I could sit on Santa's lap and tell him I wanted My Pretty Pony. Then, with a candy cane fisted in my hand, we walked to the decoration display where there were fifteen Christmas trees set up-white ones with glass balls, fake balsam ones strung with red beads and bows, one that had Tinker Bell at the top and all the Disney characters dotted as ornaments, "like this," my mother said, and right in the middle of the department store we lay down at a crossroads of the trees and gazed up at the blinking light displays. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. "I won't tell Daddy," I promised, but she said that didn't matter. This wasn't about another religion, my mother explained. These were just the trappings. You could admire the wrapping, without ever taking out what was inside the box.

After I left Shay, I sat in my car and called my mother at the ChutZpah.

"Hi," I said when she answered. "What are you doing?"

There was a beat of silence. "Maggie? What's wrong?"

"Nothing. I felt like calling you."

"Did something happen? Did you get hurt?"

"Can't I call my mother just because I feel like it?"

"You can," she said, "but you don't."

Well. There was just no arguing with the truth. I took a deep breath and forged ahead. "Do you remember the time you took me to see

Santa?"

"Please don't tell me you're converting. It'll kill your father."

"I'm not converting," I said, and my mother sighed with relief. "I just was remembering it, that's all."

"So you called to tell me?"

"No," I said. "I called to say I'm sorry."

"For what?" My mother laughed. "You haven't done anything."

In that moment, I remembered us lying on the floor of the department store, gazing at the lit trees, as a security guard loomed over us. Just gLve her another jew minutes, my mother had begged. June Nealon's face flashed before me. Maybe this was the job of a mother: to buy time for her child, no matter what. Even if it meant doing something she'd rather not; even if it left her flat on her back.

"Yes," I answered. "I know."

"Desiring religious freedom is nothing new," I said, standing up in front of Judge Haig at the opening of Shay Bourne's trial. "One of the most famous cases happened more than two hundred years ago, and it didn't take place in our country-namely, because there was no country. A group of people who dared to hold religious beliefs different from the status quo found themselves being forced to adopt the policies of the

Church of England-and instead, they chose to strike off to an unknown place across the ocean. But the Puritans liked religious freedom so much they kept it all to themselves-often persecuting people who didn't believe what they did. This is precisely why the founders of the new nation of the United States decided to put an end to religious intolerance by making religious freedom a cornerstone of this country"

This was a nonjury trial, which meant that the only person I had to preach to was the judge; but the courtroom was still filled. There were reporters there from four networks the judge had preapproved, there were victims rights advocates, there were death penalty supporters and death penalty opponents. The only party present in support of Shay-and my first witness-was Father Michael, seated just behind the plaintiff's table.

Beside me, Shay sat in handcuffs and ankle cuffs, linked to a belly chain. "Thanks to the forefathers who crafted the Constitution, everyone in this country has the freedom to practice his own religion-even a prisoner on death row in New Hampshire. In fact, Congress went so far as to pass a law about it. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons

Act guarantees an inmate the opportunity to worship whatever he likes as long as it doesn't impede the safety of others in the prison or affect the running of the prison. Yet Shay Bourne's constitutional right to practice his religion has been denied by the State of New Hampshire."

I looked up at the judge. "Shay Bourne is not a Muslim, or a Wiccan; he's not a secular humanist or a member of the Baha'i faith. In fact, his system of beliefs may not be familiar to any common world religion you can name off the top of your head. But they are a system of beliefs, and they include the fact that-to Shay-salvation depends on being able to donate his heart after his execution to the sister of his victim... an outcome that's not possible if the state uses lethal injection as a method of execution."

I walked forward. "Shay Bourne has been convicted of possibly the most heinous crime in the history of this state. He has appealed that conviction, and those appeals have been denied-yet he is not contesting that decision. He knows he is going to die, Your Honor. All he asks is that, again, the laws of this country be upheld-in particular, the laws that say anyone has the right to practice their religion, wherever, whenever, however. If the state agrees to his execution by hanging, and provides for the subsequent donation of his organs, the safety of other inmates isn't impeded; the running of the prison isn't affected-but it would offer a very significant personal outcome for Shay Bourne: to save a little girl's life, and in the process, to save his own soul."

I sat back down and glanced at Shay. He had a legal pad in front of him.

On it, he'd doodled a picture of a pirate with a parrot on his shoulder.

At the defense table, Gordon Greenleaf was seated beside the New

Hampshire commissioner of corrections, a man with both hair and complexion the color of a potato. Greenleaf tapped his pencil twice on the desk. "Ms. Bloom brought up the founding fathers of this country.

Thomas Jefferson, in fact, coined a phrase in a letter in 1789-'a wall of separation between church and state.' He was explaining the First

Amendment-in particular the clauses about religion. And his words have been used by the Supreme Court many times-in fact, the Lemon test, which the high court has used since 1971, says that for a law to be constitutional, it must have a secular purpose, must neither advance nor inhibit religion, and must not result in excessive government entanglement with religion. That last part's an interesting bit-since Ms. Bloom is both crediting the forefathers of this nation with the noble division of church and state... and yet simultaneously asking Your Honor to join them together."

He stood up, walking forward. "If you were to take her claim seriously,"

Greenleaf said, "you'd see that what she's really asking for is a legally binding sentence to be massaged, because of a loophole called religion. What's next? A convicted drug dealer asking that his sentence be overturned because heroin helps him reach nirvana? A murderer insisting that his cell door face Mecca?" Greenleaf shook his head. "The truth is,

Judge, this petition has been filed by the ACLU not because it's a valid and troublesome concern-but because it will purposefully create a three-ring circus during the state's first execution in sixty-nine years." He waved his arm around the crowded gallery. "And all of you are proof that it's already working."

Greenleaf glanced at Shay. "Nobody takes the death penalty lightly, least of all the commissioner of corrections in the State of New Hampshire.

The sentence in Shay Bourne's case was death by lethal injection.

That's exactly what the state has prepared and intends to carry out-with dignity and respect for all parties involved.

"Let's look at the facts here. No matter what Ms. Bloom says, there is no organized religion that mandates organ donation after death as a means of reaching the afterlife. According to his records, Shay Bourne was raised in foster homes, so he can't claim that he was reared in one religious tradition that fostered organ donation. If he's converted to some religion that is now claiming that organ donation is part of its tenets, we submit to this court that it's pure bunk." Greenleaf spread his hands. "We know you'll listen carefully to the testimony, Your Honor, but the reality is that the Department of Corrections is not required to submit to the whim of every misguided prisoner that comes through its doors- especially one who has committed the monstrous torture and murders of two New Hampshire citizens, a child and a police officer. Don't let Ms.

Bloom and the ACLU take a grave matter and turn it into a spectacle.

Allow the state to impose the penalty that was set forth by the court, in as civilized and professional a manner as possible."

I glanced at Shay. On his legal pad, he'd added his initials, and the logo for the band AC/DC.

The judge pushed his glasses up his nose and looked at me. "Ms.

Bloom," he said, "you may call your first witness."


TREASURED HUSBAND. | Change of heart | M I C HAEL