M IC HAEL
During the lunch recess, I went to see Shay in his holding cell. He was sitting on the floor, near the bars, while a U.S. marshal sat outside on a stool. Shay held a pencil and scrap of paper, as if he were conducting an interview.
"H," the marshal said, and Shay shook his head. "M?"
Shay scribbled something on the paper. "I'm down to your last toe, dude."
The marshal sucked in his breath. "K."
Shay grinned. "I win." He scrawled something else on the page and passed it through the bars-only then did I notice that it had been a game of hangman, and that this time around. Shay was the executioner.
Scowling, the marshal stared down at the paper. "Szygszyg isn't a real word."
"You didn't say that it had to be real when we started playing,"
Shay replied, and then he noticed me standing at the threshold of the door.
I'm Shay's spiritual advisor," I told the marshal. "Can we have a minute?"
"No problem. I have to take a whiz." He stood up, offering me the stool he was vacating, and headed out of the room.
"How are you doing?" I said quietly.
Shay walked to the back of the cell, where he lay down on the metal bunk and faced the wall.
"I want to talk to you. Shay."
"Just because you want to talk doesn't mean I want to listen."
I sank down on the stool. "I was the last one on your jury to vote for the death penalty," I said. "I was the reason we deliberated so long.
And even after I'd been convinced by the rest of the jury that this was the best sentence, I didn't feel good about it. I kept having panic attacks.
One day, during one, I stumbled into a cathedral and started to pray. The more I did it, the fewer panic attacks I had." I clasped my hands between my knees. "I thought that was a sign from God."
Still with his back to me. Shay snorted.
"I still think it's a sign from God, because it's brought me back into your life."
Shay rolled onto his back and flung one arm over his eyes. "Don't kid yourself," he said. "It's brought you back into my death."
Ian Fletcher was already standing at a urinal when I ran into the men's room. I had been hoping it would be empty. Shay's comment-the bald truth-had made me so sick to my stomach that I'd rushed out of the holding cell without explanation. I pushed into a stall, fell to my knees, and got violently ill.
No matter how much I wanted to fool myself-no matter what I said about atoning for my past sins-the bottom line was that for the second time in my life, my actions were going to result in the death of Shay
Fletcher pushed the door of the stall open and put his hand on my shoulder. "Father? You all right?"
I wiped my mouth, slowly got to my feet. I'm fine," I said, then shook my head. "No, actually, I'm awful."
I walked to the sink, turned on the faucet, and splashed water on my face as Fletcher watched. "Do you need to sit down or something?"
I dried my face with a paper towel he passed me. And suddenly, I wanted someone else to bear this burden. Ian Fletcher was a man who'd unraveled secrets from two thousand years ago; surely he could keep one of mine. "I was on his jury," I murmured into the recycled brown paper.
No, I am. I thought. I met Fletcher's gaze. "I was on the jury that sentenced Shay Bourne to death. Before I joined the priesthood."
Fletcher let out a long, low whistle. "Does he know?"
"I told him a few days ago."
"And his lawyer?"
I shook my head. "I keep thinking that this must be how Judas felt after turning Jesus in."
Fletcher's mouth turned up at the corners. "Actually, there's a recently discovered Gnostic gospel-the Gospel of Judas-and there's very little in there about betrayal. In fact, this gospel paints Judas as Jesus's confidant- the only one he trusted to make what needed to happen, happen."
"Even if it was an assisted suicide," I said, I'm sure Judas felt like crap about it afterward. I mean, he killed himself."
"Well," Fletcher said, "there was that."
"What would you do if you were me?" I asked. "Would you carry through with this? Help Shay donate his heart?"
"I guess that depends on why you're helping him," Fletcher said slowly. "Is it to save him, like you said on the stand? Or are you really just trying to save yourself?" He shook his head. "If man had the answers for questions like those, there wouldn't be a need for religion.
Good luck. Father."
I went back into the stall and closed the lid of the toilet, sat down. I slipped my rosary out of my pocket and whispered the familiar words of the prayers, sweet in my mouth like sucking candies.
Finding God's grace wasn't like locating missing keys or the forgotten name of a 1940s pinup girl-it was more of a feeling: the sun breaking through an overcast morning, the softest bed sinking under your weight. And, of course, you couldn't find God's grace unless you admitted you were lost.
A bathroom stall at the federal courthouse might not be the most likely spot to find God's grace, but that didn't mean it couldn't be done.
Find God's grace.
If Shay was willing to give up his heart, then the least I could do was make sure he'd be remembered in someone else's. Someone who- unlike me-had never condemned him.
That was when I decided to find Shay's sister.
It is not an easy thing to pick the clothes in which your child will be buried. I had been told by the funeral director, after the murders, to think about it. He suggested something that represented her, a beautiful girl-such as a nice little dress, one that opened up the back, preferably. He asked me to bring in a picture of her so that he could use makeup to match the blush of her cheek, the natural color of her skin, her hairstyle.
What I had wanted to say to him was: Elizabeth hated dresses.
She would have worn pants without buttons, because they were frustrating, or possibly last year's Halloween costume, or the tiny set of doctors' scrubs she got for Christmas-I had, just days before, found her "operating" on an overgrown zucchini that was the size of a newborn. I would have told him that Elizabeth did not have a hairstyle, because you could not ground her long enough to brush it, much less braid or curl. And that I did not want him putting makeup on her face, not when I would never have that bonding moment between a mother and daughter in a bathroom before an elegant night on the town, when I could let her try the eye shadow, a smudge of mascara, pink lipstick.
The funeral director told me that it might be nice to have a table of mementos that meant something to Elizabeth-stuffed animals or family vacation photos, chocolate chip cookies. To play her favorite music. To let her school friends write messages to her, which could be buried in a silk satchel inside the coffin.
What I wanted to say to him was: Don't you realize that by telling me the same things you tell everyone else about how to make a meaningful funeral, you are making it meaningless? That
Elizabeth deserved fireworks, an angel choir, the world turning backward on its axis.
In the end, I had dressed Elizabeth in a ballerina's tutu, one she somehow always wanted to wear when we went grocery shopping, and that I always made her take off before we left. I let the funeral director put makeup on her face for the first time. I gave her a stuffed dog, her stepfather, and most of my heart to take with her.
It was not an open-casket funeral; but before we left for the graveside service, the funeral director lifted the cover to make final adjustments. At that moment, I pushed him out of the way.
Let me, I had said.
Kurt was wearing his uniform, as befitted a police officer killed in the line of duty. He looked exactly like he did every day, except for the fine white line around his finger where his wedding ring had been. That, I now wore on a chain around my neck.
Elizabeth looked delicate, angelic. Her hair was tied up in matching ribbons. Her arm was around her stepfather's waist.
I reached into the coffin, and the moment my hand brushed my daughter's cheek I shivered, because somehow I had still expected it to be warm-not this fake-flesh, this cool-to-the-touch skin. I tugged the ribbons out of her hair, gently lifted her head, fanned her hair on both sides of her face. I tugged the left leotard sleeve down a quarter inch, to match the one on the right.
I hope you're pleased, the funeral director had said.
It didn't look like Elizabeth, not one bit, because she was too perfect. My daughter would have been rumpled and untucked, her hands dirty from chasing frogs, her socks mismatched, her wrists ringed with bracelets she'd beaded herself.
But in a world where things happen that shouldn't, you find yourself saying and doing things that are the complete opposite of what you mean. So I had nodded, and watched him seal away the two people I loved most in this world.
Now I found myself in the same position I'd been in eleven years ago, standing in the middle of my daughter's bedroom and sifting through her clothes. I sorted through shirts and skirts and tights, jeans as soft as flannel and a sweatshirt that still smelled like the apple orchard where she last wore it. I chose a pair of flared black leggings and a long-sleeved tee that had Tinker Bell printed on it-clothes that I had seen Claire wear on the laziest of
Sundays, when it was snowing and there was nothing to be done but read the Sunday paper and doze with your cheek pressed against the wall of heat thrown by the fireplace. I picked out a pair of underwear-SATURDAY, it read across the front, but I couldn't find any other days of the week scattered in the drawer. It was when I was looking that I found, wrapped in a red bandanna, the photograph. In a tiny silver oval frame, I thought at first it was one of Claire's baby pictures-and then I realized it was Elizabeth.
The frame used to sit on top of the piano that nobody played anymore, gathering dust. The fact that I never even noticed it was missing was a testament to the fact that I must have learned how to live again.
Which is why I collected the clothes and put them into a shopping bag to take to the hospital: an outfit in which I sincerely hoped I would not bury my daughter, but instead, bring her back home.
These nights, I slept well. There were no more sweats, no diarrhea, no fevers to keep me thrashing in my bunk. Crash Vitale was still in solitary, so his rants didn't wake me. From time to time, the extra officer who'd been assigned to Shay for protection would prowl through the tier, his boots a soft-soled shuffle on the catwalk.
I had been sleeping so well, in fact, that I was surprised I woke up to the quiet conversation going on in the cell next door to mine. "Will you just let me explain?" Shay asked. "What if there's another way?"
I waited to hear whom he was talking to, but there was no answer.
"Shay?" I said. "Are you okay?"
"I tried to give away my heart," I heard him say. "And look at what it turned into." Shay kicked at the wall; something heavy in his cell tumbled to the floor. "I know what you want. But do you know what I want?"
His voice was just a braid of breath. "Abba?"
"It's me. Lucius."
There was a beat of silence. "You were listening to my conversation."
Was it a conversation if you were having a monologue in your own cell? "I didn't mean to... you woke me up."
"Why were you asleep?" Shay asked.
"Because it's three in the morning?" I replied. "Because that's what you're supposed to be doing?"
"What I'm supposed to be doing," Shay repeated. "Right."
There was a thud, and I realized Shay had fallen. The last time that had happened, he'd been having a seizure. I scrabbled under neath the bunk and pulled out the mirror-shank. "Shay," I called out.
In the reflection, I could see him. He was on his knees in the front of the cell, with his hands spread wide. His head was bowed, and he was bathed in sweat, which-from the dim crimson light on the catwalklooked like beads of blood.
"Go away," he said, and I withdrew the mirror from the slats of my own door, giving him privacy.
As I hid away my makeshift mirror, I caught a glimpse of my own reflection.
Like Shay's, my skin looked scarlet. And yet even that didn't stop me from noticing the familiar ruby sore that had opened up once again across my forehead-a scar, a stain, a planet's moving storm.