M I CHAEL
Priests get used to the business of death, but that doesn't make it any easier. Even now that the judge had ruled in favor of a hanging, that still meant there was a will to be written. A body to be disposed of.
As I stood in the prison waiting room, handing over my license so that I could visit Shay, I listened to the commotion outside. This was nothing new; the mob would grow at leaps and bounds through the date of Shay's execution. "You don't understand," a woman was pleading.
"I have to see him."
"Take a number, sweetheart," the officer said.
I looked out the open window, trying to see the woman's face. It was obscured by a black scarf; her dress reached from ankle to wrist. I burst through the front door and stood behind the line of correctional officers. "Grace?"
She looked up, tears in her eyes. "They won't let me in. I have to see him."
I reached over the human barrier of guards and pulled her forward.
"She's with me."
"She's not on Bourne's visitor list."
"That's because," I said, "we're going to see the warden."
I had no idea how to get someone who had not had a background check done into the prison, but I figured that rules would be relaxed for a death row prisoner. And if they weren't, I was willing to say what I had to to convince the warden.
In the end. Warden Coyne was more amenable than I expected. He looked at Grace's driver's license, made a call to the state's attorney's office, and then offered me a deal. I couldn't take Grace into the tier, but he was willing to bring Shay out to an attorney-client conference room, as long as he remained handcuffed. I'm not going to let you do this again," he warned, but that hardly mattered. We both knew that
Shay didn't have time for that.
Grace's hands shook as she emptied her pockets to go through the metal detector. We followed the officer to the conference room in silence, but as soon as the door was closed and we were left alone, she started to speak. "I wanted to come to the courthouse," Grace said. "I even drove there. I just couldn't get out of the car." She faced me. "What if he doesn't want to see me?"
"I don't know what frame of mind he'll be in," I said honestly. "He won his trial, but the mother of the heart recipient doesn't want him to be the donor anymore. I'm not sure if his attorney's told him that yet. If he refuses to see you, that might be why."
Only a few minutes passed before two officers brought Shay into the room. He looked hopeful, his fists clenched tight. He saw my face, and then turned-expecting Maggie, most likely. He'd probably been told there were two visitors, and figured one of us had managed to change June's mind.
As he saw his sister, however, he froze. "Gracie? Is that you?"
She took a step forward. "Shay. I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry."
"Don't cry," he whispered. He went to lift his hand to touch her, but he was handcuffed, and instead just shook his head. "You grew up."
"The last time I saw you I was only fifteen."
He smiled ruefully. "Yeah. I was fresh out of juvy jail, and you wanted nothing to do with your loser brother. I think your exact words were 'Get the hell away from me.' "
"That's because I didn't-I hadn't-" She was sobbing hard now. "I don't want you to die."
"I have to, Grace, to make things right... I'm okay with that."
"Well, I'm not." She looked up at him. "I want to tell someone.
He stared at her for a long moment. "All right," Shay said. "But only one person, and I get to pick. And," he added, "I get to do this." He reached for the tail of the veil wrapped around her face, which was level with his bound hands. Tugging, he unraveled it, until it fluttered to the ground between them.
Grace brought her hands up to cover her face. But Shay reached up as far as he could in his chains until Grace threaded her fingers with his. Her skin was pocked and puckered, a whirlpool in some places, too tight in others, a relief map of the topology of regret.
Shay ran his thumb over the spot where her eyebrow should have been, where her lip twisted, as if he could repaint her. The look on his face was so honest, so replete, that I felt like I was intruding. I had seen it before-I just couldn't place it.
And then it came to me. A Madonna. Shay was staring at his sister the same way Mary looked at Jesus in all the paintings, all the sculptures-a relationship carved out of not what they had, but what they'd been destined to lose.
I had never seen the woman who came into Claire's hospital room, but I'd never forget her. Her face was horribly disfigured-the kind that you're always telling your kids not to stare at in the grocery store, and yet, when push came to shove, you found yourself doing that very thing.
"I'm sorry," I said quietly, standing up from the chair I'd pulled beside Claire's bed. "I think you must have the wrong room." Now that I had agreed to Claire's wishes and given up the heart-now that she was dying by degrees-I kept a vigil, 2 4 / 7. I didn't sleep, I didn't eat, because years from now, I knew I would miss those minutes.
"You're June Nealon?" the woman asked, and when I nodded, she took a step forward. "My name is Grace. I'm Shay Bourne's sister."
You know how when you're driving and skid on ice, or just avoid hitting the deer, you find yourself with your heart racing and your hands shaking and your blood gone to ice? That's what
Grace's words did to me. "Get out," I said, my jaw clenched.
"Please. Just hear me out. I want to tell you why I... why I look this way."
I glanced down at Claire, but who was I kidding? We could scream at the top of our lungs and not disturb her; she was in a medically induced haze. "What makes you think I want to listen?"
She continued, as if I hadn't spoken at all. "When I was thir teen, I was in a fire. So was my whole foster family. My foster father, he died." She took a step forward. "I ran in to try to get my foster father out. Shay was the one who came to save me."
"Sorry, but I can't quite think of your brother as a hero."
"When the police came, Shay told them he'd set the fire,"
I folded my arms. She hadn't said anything yet that surprised me. I knew that Shay Bourne had been in and out of the foster care system. I knew that he'd been sent to juvenile prison. You could throw ten thousand more excuses for a sorry childhood on his shoulders, and in my opinion, it still wouldn't negate the fact that my husband, my baby, had been killed.
"The thing is," Grace said, "Shay lied." She pushed her hand through her hair. "I'm the one who set the fire."
"My daughter is dying," I said tightly. "I'm sorry you had such a traumatic past. But right now, I have other things to focus on."
Undaunted, Grace kept speaking. "It would happen when my foster mom went to visit her sister. Her husband would come to my bedroom. I used to beg to leave my lights on at night. At first, it was because I was afraid of the dark; then later it was because I so badly wanted someone to see what was happening." Her voice trailed off.
"So one day, I planned it. My foster mother was gone overnight, and Shay was-I don't know where, but not home. I guess I didn't think about the consequences until after I lit the match-so I ran in to try to wake my foster dad up. But someone dragged me back out-Shay. And as the sirens got closer I told him everything and he promised me he'd take care of it. I never thought he meant to take the blame-but he wanted to, because he hadn't been able to rescue me before." Grace glanced up at me. "I don't know what happened that day, with your husband, and your little girl, and my brother.
But I bet, somehow, something went wrong. That Shay was trying to save her, the way he couldn't save me."
"It's not the same," I said. "My husband would never have hurt Elizabeth like that."
"My foster mother said that, too." She met my gaze. "How would you have felt if-when Elizabeth died-someone told you that you can't have her back, but that a part of her could still be somewhere in the world? You may not know that part; you may not ever have contact with it-but you'd know it was out there, alive and well. Would you have wanted that?"
We were both standing on the same side of Claire's bed. Grace
Bourne was almost exactly my height, my build. In spite of her scars, it felt like looking into a mirror. "There's still a heart, June," she said. "And it's a good one."
We pretend that we know our children, because it's easier than admitting the truth-from the minute that cord is cut, they are strangers. It's far easier to tell yourself your daughter is still a little girl than to see her in a bikini and realize she has the curves of a young woman; it's safer to say you are a good parent who has all the right conversations about drugs and sex than to acknowledge there are a thousand things she would never tell you.
How long ago had Claire decided that she couldn't fight any longer? Did she talk to a friend, a diary, Dudley, because I didn't listen? And had I done this before: ignored another daughter, because
I was too afraid to hear what she had to say?
Grace Bourne's words kept circling around my mind: My foster mother said that, too.
No. Kurt would never.
But there were other images clouding my mind, like flags thrown on a grassy field: the pair of Elizabeth's panties that I found inside a couch cushion liner when she was too little to know how to work a zipper. The way he often needed to search for something in the bathroom-Tylenol, an Ace bandage-when
Elizabeth was in the tub.
And I heard Elizabeth, every night, when I tucked her in.
"Leave the lights on," she'd beg, just like Grace Bourne had.
I had thought it was a phase she'd outgrow, but Kurt said we couldn't let her give in to her fears. The compromise he suggested was to turn off the light-and lie down with her until she fell asleep.
What happens when I'm asleep? she'd asked me once. Does everything stop?
What if that had not been the dreamy question of a seven-yearold still figuring out this world, but a plea from a child who wanted to escape it?
I thought of Grace Bourne, hiding behind her scarves. I thought of how you can look right at a person and not see them.
I realized that I might never know what had really happened between them-neither Kurt nor Elizabeth could tell. And Shay
Bourne-well, no matter what he saw, his fingerprints had still been on that gun. After last time, I did not know if I could ever bear to face him again.
She was better off dead, he'd said, and I'd run away from what he was trying to tell me.
I pictured Kurt and Elizabeth together in that coffin, his arms holding her tight, and suddenly I thought I was going to throw up.
"Mom," Claire said, her voice thin and wispy. "Are you okay?"
I put my hand on her cheek, where there was a faint flush induced by the medicine-her heart was not strong enough to put a bloom on her face. "No, I'm not," I admitted. "I'm dying."
She smiled a little. "What a coincidence."
But it wasn't funny. I was dying, by degrees. "I have to tell you something," I said, "and you're going to hate me for it." I reached for her hand and squeezed it tightly. "I know it isn't fair. But you're the child, and I'm the parent, and I get to make the choice, even though the heart gets to beat in your chest."
Her eyes filled with tears. "But you said-you promised. Don't make me do this..."
"Claire, I cannot sit here and watch you die when I know that there's a heart waiting for you."
"But not just any heart." She was crying now, her head turned away from me. "Did you think at all what it will be like for me, after?"
I brushed her hair off her forehead. "It's all I think about, baby."
"That's a lie," Claire argued. "All you ever think about is yourself, and what you want, and what you've lost. You know, you're not the only one who missed out on a real life."
"That's exactly why I can't let you throw this one away."
Slowly, Claire turned to face me.
"I don't want to be alive because of him."
"Then stay alive because of me." I drew in my breath and pulled my deepest secret free. "See, I'm not as strong as you are,
Claire. I don't think I can stand to be left behind again."
She closed her eyes, and I thought she had drifted back into sleep, until she squeezed my hand. "Okay," she said. "But I hope you realize I may hate you for the rest of my life."
The rest of my life. Was there any other phrase with so much music in it? "Oh, Claire," I said tightly. "That's going to be a long, long time."
"God is dead: but considering the state Man is in, there will perhaps be caves, for ages yet, in which his shadow will be shown."
- FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE, THE CAY SCIENCE