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She also seems determined to give the Da Vinci Code a run for its money…Laced with intriguing musings on the Gnostic Gospels, Picoult's bold story of loss, justice, redemption and faith reminds us how tragically truth can be concealed and denied. Let the book club debates begin.
I have no idea where they were keeping Shay Bourne, before they brought him to us. I knew he was an inmate here at the state prison in Concord — I can still remember watching the news the day his sentence was handed down so I could scrutinize an outside world that was starting to fade in my mind: Rumor had it that in fact, the prison did have a pair of death row cells — not too far from my own humble abode in the Secure Housing Unit on I-tier. Crash Vitale — who had something to say about everything, although no one bothered to listen — told us that the old death row cells were stacked with the thin, plastic slabs that pass for mattresses here.
I wondered for a while what happened to all those extra mattresses after Shay arrived. Moving cells is routine, in prison. As he was escorted in by a phalanx of six correctional officers wearing helmets and flak jackets and face shields, we came forward to the front of our cells, pressed up against the Plexiglas in our doors to better see. There were eight cells in I-tier, each holding such distinct personalities that to me it sometimes seemed a miracle the steel bars could contain them.
Cell 1 housed Joey Kunz, a pedophile who was the bottom of the pecking order. Cell 3 was me, Lucius DuFresne. Texas Wridell, Pogie Simmons, and — of course — Crash, the unofficial self-appointed leader of I-tier. The COs passed by the shower stall, shuffled by Joey and Calloway, and then paused right in front of my cell, so I could get a good look. Shay Bourne was small and slight, with close-cropped brown hair and eyes like the sea in the Caribbean.
Maybe now would be a good time to tell you what I look like. The sores are scarlet and purple and scaly. They spread from my forehead to my chin. Even the polite ones like the eighty year old missionary who comes to bring us pamphlets once a month always does a double-take, as if I look even worse than he remembers. But Shay Bourne just met my gaze and nodded at me, as if I were no different than anyone else. I heard the door of the cell beside mine slide shut; the clink of chains as Shay stuck his hands through the trap to have his cuffs removed.
The COs left the pod, and almost immediately Crash started in. I was a little surprised that a death row prisoner would have been able to purchase a television from the canteen, same as us. It would have been a thirteen inch one, specially made for us wards of the state by Zenith, with a clear plastic shell around its guts and cathodes, so that the COs would be able to tell if you were extracting parts to make weapons. As Calloway and Crash united as they often did to humiliate me, I pulled out my own set of headphones and turned on my television.
But when I tried to change the channel, nothing happened. The screen flickered, as if it was resetting to channel 22, but channel 22 looked just like channel 3 and channel 5 and CNN and the Food Network. There were clowns and balloons and even professional hockey players.
Boo hoo, I thought. I took off my headphones. It was a crime of passion — the only issue is that I focused on the passion part and the courts focused on the crime. But I ask you, what would you have done, if the love of your life found a new love of his life — someone younger, thinner, better looking? Someone without HIV would have a normal T-cell count of a thousand cells or more, but the virus becomes part of these white blood cells. When the white blood cells reproduce to fight infection, the virus reproduces too. As the immune system gets weak, the more likely I am to get sick, or to develop an opportunistic infection, like PCP, toxoplasmosis, CMV.
I was an artist by vocation, and now, by avocation — although it was considerably more challenging to get my supplies in a place like this. Where I had once favored Windsor-Newton oils and red sable brushes, linen canvases I stretched myself and coated with gesso; I now used whatever I could get my hands on. I had my nephews draw me pictures on card stock in pencil that I erased, so that I could use the paper over again. I hoarded the foods that produced pigment.
Tonight I had been working on a portrait of Adam, drawn of course from memory, because that was all I had left. With the broken tip of a pencil, I had transferred the color to my makeshift canvas. I enjoyed working at night because it was quieter. Even if I do, I find myself getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom — as little as I eat these days, food passes through me at lightning speed. I get sick to my stomach; I get headaches. The thrush in my mouth and throat makes it hard to swallow. Instead, I use my insomnia to fuel my artwork.
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Instead, I had pulled out my painting and started recreating Adam. Distracted, I walked to the front of my cell, to see who he was having a conversation with at this hour of night. But the pod was silent, empty. Maybe he was having a nightmare. Well, in a way, he was right. I may not have been handed down the same sentence as Shay Bourne, but like him, I would die within the walls of this prison — sooner, rather than later. In a way, I was relieved to talk about TV instead of art history. Although I used to be a PBS snob, I now found myself watching the shows the rest of the philistines in here enjoyed.
We were addicted to the Red Sox and the Patriots; we kept meticulous score of their league standings depending on the time of year, and we debated the fairness of umpire and ref calls as if they were law and we were Supreme Court judges. Sometimes, like us, our teams had their hopes dashed; other times we got to share their Super Bowl.
Before I could respond, there was a loud crash and the thud of flesh smacking against the concrete floor. I pressed my face up against the Plexiglas lining the cell door. The others started to wake up, cursing me out for disturbing their rest, and then falling silent with fascination. Two officers stormed into I-tier, still velcroing their flak jackets. The other, CO Smythe, had never been anything but professional toward me. Kappaletti stopped in front of my cell. On the count of three…. The EMTs arrived and wheeled Shay past my cell on a gurney — a stretcher with restraints across the shoulders, belly, and legs that was used to transport inmates like Crash, who were too much trouble even cuffed at the waist and ankles; or inmates who were too sick to walk to the infirmary.
But now, I realized that it looked a lot like the table Shay would one day be strapped onto, for his lethal injection. His eyes had rolled up in their sockets, white and blind. When Shay Bourne returned to I-tier after three days in the hospital infirmary, he was a man with a mission. Every morning, when the officers came to poll us to see who wanted a shower or time in the yard, Shay would ask if he could speak to Warden Coyne. He cast into the center of the catwalk — risky behavior, since the COs would be back any minute. God only knew why a bird would make a nest in a hellhole like this, but one had a few months back, after flying in through the exercise yard.
One egg had fallen out and cracked; the baby robin lay on its side, unfinished; its thin, wrinkled chest working like a piston. Calloway reeled the egg in, inch by inch. We all had forgotten what it was like to care about something so much that you might not be able to stand losing it. The first year I was in here, I used to pretend that the full moon was my pet; that it came once a month just to me.
And this past summer, Crash had taken to spreading jam on the louvers of his vent to cultivate a colony of bees, but that was less about husbandry than his misguided belief that he could train them to swarm Joey in his sleep. A moment later the doors buzzed open; they stood in front of the shower cell waiting for Shay to stick his hands through the trap to be cuffed for the twenty foot journey back to his own cell. I cleared my throat.
Could I have a request form, too, when you get a chance? He finished locking Shay up again, then took one out of his pocket and stuffed it into the trap of my cell. Not the right way, anyhow. When I start the letters all get tangled. I want to give it to a girl who needs it more than me. I tied the note to the end of my own fishing line and swung it beneath the narrow opening of his cell door.
For whatever reason, Crash actually listened. He went to the sink and turned the faucet, I could hear splashing. Oh man oh man oh man. We all knew our pipes were connected. The bad news about this was that you literally could not get away from the shit brought down by the others around you. I stood up and turned the faucet in the sink.
The water that spilled out was dark as rubies. It could have been iron or manganese, but this water smelled like sugar, and dried sticky. I did not drink the tap water in here — none of us did. But I bent my head to the tap, all the same, and drank straight from the flow. But this was like none of those. By now, everyone else on the pod realized that there had been some snafu with the plumbing. They were all drinking, hooting, shrieking.
And Calloway challenging Shay to a chugging contest, but Shay saying he would sit that one out. That night when I woke up with the sweats, my heart drilling through the spongy base of my throat, Shay was talking to himself again. They pull up the sheet, he said. Ingeniously, the triangular result doubled as both a mirror and a shank. He was lying on his bunk with his eyes closed and his arms crossed over his heart. His breathing had gone so shallow that his chest barely rose and fell.
I could have sworn I smelled the worms in freshly turned soil. I had done that myself. Maggie, she said, if you got rid of him, you could find Someone. On the other hand, Oliver knew just what I needed, and when I needed it. Surely the reason there was a seven in there was because Oliver had been on the scale too. But I would, one day, or so I told my mother the fitness queen, as soon as all the people on whose behalf I worked tirelessly were absolutely, unequivocally rescued.
To which my mother had replied, Try Warrior Two, then. You could kill two birds with one stone. As usual, he was right. He followed me into the kitchen, where I poured us both bowls of rabbit food his literal, mine Special K. And my clients, for that matter. I grabbed my keys and headed out to my Prius. My parents had moved to Lynley — a town twenty-six miles east of Concord, NH — seven years ago when my father took over as rabbi at Temple Beth Or.
The catch was that there was no Temple Beth Or: By now, anyway, his congregation had grown used to readings from the Torah that were routinely punctuated by the cheers of the audience at the basketball game in the gymnasium down the hall. My mother used salt from the Dead Sea for her scrubs. Her spa cuisine was kosher. The first Saturday of every month, I drove to the spa for a free massage or facial or pedicure.
The catch was that afterward, I had to suffer through lunch with my mother. We had it down to a routine. Needless to say, we never got around to dessert. The ChutZpah was white. I have no idea how my mother kept the place so clean, given that when I was growing up, the house was always comfortably cluttered. I took the robe and slippers she handed me. Locker was in a bank with fifty others, and several toned middle-age women were stripping out of their yoga clothes.
I breezed into another section of lockers, one that was blissfully empty, and changed into my robe. I punched in my key code — , for ACLU — took a bracing breath, and walked out into the whirlpool area: DeeDee appeared in her immaculate jacket, smiling. I never quite figured out the protocol for this part of the experience — you said hello and then disrobed immediately so that a total stranger could lay hands on you Was it just me, or was there a great deal that spa treatments had in common with prostitution?
I forced myself to close my eyes and remember that being washed beneath a Vichy shower by someone else was supposed to make me feel like a queen, instead of a hospitalized invalid.
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She unrolled a towel and held it like a screen as I rolled onto my back. His last appeal just got rejected by the Supreme Court. She pressed her lips together and wrapped the plastic around me a little too tightly. DeeDee smiled and covered me with heated blankets, until I was trussed tight as a burrito.
Then she sat down behind me and wove her fingers into my hair. As she massaged my scalp, my eyes drifted shut. I thought of Shay Bourne, being given the news of his own impending death. I thought of lying on a table like this one, being put to sleep. The blankets were too hot; the cream on my skin too thick. I wanted out of the layers, and began to fight my way free.
I sat up, drawing great gasps of air into my lungs. It was late afternoon, almost time for the shift change, and I-tier was relatively quiet. Calloway, who usually played chess with me about this time of day, was playing with Shay instead. During the day, Batman the Robin resided in his breast pocket, a small lump no bigger than a pack of Starburst candies. Sometimes it crawled onto his shoulder and pecked at the scars on his scalp. At other times, he kept Batman in a paperback copy of The Stand that had been doctored as a hiding place — starting on chapter six, a square had been cut out of the pages of the thick book with a pilfered razor blade, creating a little hollow that Calloway lined with tissues to make a bed for the bird.
The bird ate mashed potatoes; Calloway traded precious masking tape and twine and even a homemade handcuff key for our own portions. By now, the brownie was two days old. I doubted that Calloway would even be able to swallow it. Consider yourself officially screwed. I wondered if either of them would notice if I happened to steal a crumb or two for myself.
There was nowhere left for Calloway to go. At that moment the door to I-tier opened, admitting a pair of officers in flak jackets and helmets. There was nothing worse than having your cell searched. In here, all we had were our belongings, and having them pored over and inspected was a gross invasion of privacy. Not to mention the fact that when it happened, you had an excellent chance of losing your best stash, be that drugs or hooch or chocolate or my art supplies or the stinger I rigged from paper clips to heat up my instant coffee.
They came in with flashlights and long handled mirrors, and worked systematically. He rolled his eyes as his blanket was checked for unraveled threads; his jaw tensed when a postage stamp was peeled off an envelope, revealing the black tar heroin underneath. But when his bookshelf was reached — we were allowed five paperbacks at one time — Calloway flinched. I looked for the small bulge in his breast pocket that would have been the bird, and realized that Batman the Robin was somewhere inside that cell.
The pages were rifled, the spine snapped, the book tossed against the cell wall. I could not remember ever seeing him quite so unraveled. As soon as he was released back into his cell, he ran to the rear corner where the bird had been flung. The sound that Calloway Reece made was primordial, bloodcurdling; but then maybe that was always the case when a grown man with no heart started to cry.
He sank down to the floor of his cell, cradling the dead bird. In here, you were only as good as your word, and Calloway — a card carrying member of the Aryan Brotherhood — would have known that better than anyone else. When the robin reached me, I drew it beneath the door of my cell. It was still featherless and half-cooked, its closed eye translucent blue; veins thinly veiled beneath its onion-skin like a road map of life. One wing was bent at a severe backward angle; its neck lolled sideways, so that I could stroke its fragile throat. So this is what death looked like, when you held it in your hand: Shay sent out his own line of string, with a weight made of a regulation comb on one end, and reel in the bundle I fished out to him.
I saw his hands gently slide the robin, wrapped in tissue, under the door of his cell. Then the lights in our cells and out on the catwalk flickered. I imagine the touch of someone who loves you so much, he cannot bear to watch you sleep; and so you wake up with his hand on your heart. In the long run though, it hardly matters how Shay did it. What matters is the result: You can watch your twelve year old daughter painting her nails with glitter polish and remember how she used to reach for you when she wanted to cross the street.
Claire shifted slightly, careful not to dislodge all the tubes and the wires. Dudley was our dog — a thirteen year old Springer spaniel who — along with me — was one of the only pieces of continuity between Claire and her late sister. Morrissey if I have to. Claire nodded and glanced at the clock. There were a hundred answers to that, but the one that floated to the top of my mind was that in some other hospital, two counties away, another mother had to say goodbye to her child so that I would have a chance to keep mine.
There was a camp that attributed its onset to myocarditis and other viral infections during infancy; and another that claimed it was inherited through a parent who was a carrier of the defective gene. I had always assumed the latter was the case, with Claire. After all, surely a child who grew out of grief would be born with a heavy heart.
She got tired more easily than other infants, but I was still moving in slow motion myself, and did not notice. Wu said that Claire had a slight arrhythmia which might improve and might not; he put her on Captopril, Lasix, Digoxin. On the first day of fifth grade, Claire told me it felt like she had swallowed a hummingbird. I assumed it was nerves about starting classes, but hours later -- when she stood up to solve a math problem at the chalkboard -- she passed out cold.
Those basketball players who seemed so healthy, and then dropped dead on the court? That was ventricular fibrillation, and it was happening to Claire. She had surgery to implant an AICD — a tiny, internal ER resting right on her heart, which would fix future arrhythmias by administering an electric shock.
She was put on the list for a transplant. Wu said, fifteen years from now, we might be able to buy a heart off a shelf and have it installed at Best Buy…the idea was to keep Claire alive long enough to let medical innovation catch up to her. This morning, the beeper we carried at all times had gone off. We have a heart, Dr. Wu said, when I called. For the past six hours, Claire had been poked, pricked, scrubbed, and prepped so that the minute the miracle organ arrived in its little Igloo cooler, she could go straight into surgery.
Paper and scissors, I thought. We are between a rock and a hard place. I looked at the fan of her angel hair on the pillow, the faint blue cast of her skin, the fairy-light bones of a girl whose body was still too much for her to handle. I leaned down and kissed her forehead. But all I heard were the first four words: You will wake up. A nurse came into the room. After she left, Claire and I sat in silence.
We had both heard numerous doctors explain the risks and the rewards; we knew how infrequently pediatric donors came about. Claire shrank down in the bed, her covers sliding up to her nose. And besides, they all died horrible deaths. Saint Maria Goretti was my age when she fought off a guy who was raping her and was killed and she got to be one.
She looked up at the clock.
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The funeral of a police officer is a breathtaking thing. Officers and firemen and public officials will come from every town in the state and some even further away. There is a procession of police cruisers that precedes the hearse; they blanket the highway like snow. The police chief, Irv, rode with me to the graveside service. It was summertime, and the ground sank beneath the heels of my shoes where I stood.
My back hurt, and my feet were swollen.
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I found myself concentrating on a lilac tree that shuddered in the breeze, petals falling like rain. The police chief had arranged for a twenty-one gun salute, and as it finished, five fighter jets rose over the distant violet mountains. They sliced the sky in parallel lines, and then, just as they flew overhead, the plane on the far right broke off like a splinter, soaring east.
Like the rest of the Lynley force, they had covered their badges with black fabric. Their hands moved so fast — I thought of Mickey Mouse, of Donald Duck, with their oversized white fists. Through the radios of the other policemen, we heard the final call: All units stand by for a broadcast, the voice said.