My mother threw her napkin down. "I'm getting a Tylenol," she said,

and left the table.

My father grinned at me. "You would have made such a good rabbi,


"Yeah, if only that pesky religion thing didn't keep getting in the


I had, of course, been raised Jewish. I would sit through Friday night

services and listen to the soaring, rich voice of the cantor; I would watch

my father reverently carry the Torah and it would remind me of how he

looked in my baby pictures when he held me. But I'd also grow so bored

that I'd find myself memorizing the names of who begat whom in Numbers.

The more I learned about Jewish law the more I felt that, as a girl, I

was bound to be considered unclean or limited or lacking. I had my bat

mitzvah, like my parents wanted; and the day after I read from the Torah

and celebrated my transition into adulthood, I told my parents I was

never going to temple again.

Why? my father had asked when I told him.

Because I don't think God really cares whether or not I'm sitting there

every Friday night. Because I don't buy into a religion that's based on what thou

shalt not do, instead of what thou ought to be doing for the greater good. Because

I don't know what I believe.

I didn't have the heart to tell him the truth: that I was much closer to

an atheist than an agnostic, that I doubted there was a God at all. In my

line of work, I'd seen too much injustice in the world to buy into the

belief that a merciful, all-powerful deity would continue to allow such

atrocities to exist; and I downright detested the party line that there was

some divine grand plan for humanity's bumbling existence. It was a little

like a parent watching her children playing with hre and thinking, Well,

let them burn. That'll teach 'em.

Once, when I was in high school, I asked my father about religions

that were, with the passage of time, considered to be false. The Greeks

and Romans, with all their gods, thought they were making sacrifices and

praying at temples in order to receive favor from their deities; but today,

pious people would scoff. How do you know, I'd asked my father, that

five hundred years from now, some alien master race won't be picking

over the artifacts of your Torah and their crucifix and wondering how

you could be so naive?

My father, who was the first to take a controversial situation and say

"Let's think about that," had been speechless. Because, he'd said finally, a

religion doesn't last two thousand years if it's based on a lie.

Here's my take on it: I don't think religions are based on lies, but I

don't think they're based on truths, either. I think they come about because

of what people need at the time that they need them. Like the

World Series player who won't take off his lucky socks, or the mother of

the sick child who believes that her baby can sleep only if she's sitting by

the cribbelievers need, by definition, something to believe in.

"So what's your plan?" my father asked, bringing my attention back.

I glanced up. "I'm going to save him."

"Maybe you're the Messiah," he mused.

My mother sat down again, popped two pills into her mouth, and

swallowed them dry. "What if he's creating this whole to-do so that somebody

like you will come out of the woodwork and keep him from being


Well, I'd already considered that. "It doesn't matter if it's all a big

ruse," I said. "As long as I can get the court to buy it, it's still a blow

against the death penalty." I imagined myself being interviewed by

Stone Phillips. Who, when the cameras cut, would ask me out to


"Promise me you won't be one of these lawyers who falls for the

criminal and marries him in the prison . . ."


"Well, it happens, Maggie. Felons are very persuasive people."

"And you know this because you've personally spent so much time in


She held up her hands. "I'm just saying."

"Rachel, I think Maggie's got this under control," my father said.

"Why don't we get ready to go?"

My mother started clearing the dishes, and I followed her into the

kitchen. We fell into a familiar routine: I'd load the dishwasher and rinse

off the big platters; she'd dry. "I can finish," I said, like I did every week.

"You don't want to be late for temple."

She shrugged. "They can't start without your father." I passed her a

dripping serving bowl, but she set it on the counter and examined my

hand instead. "Look at your nails, Maggie."

I pulled away. "I've got more important things to do than make sure

my cuticles are trimmed, Ma."

"It's not about the manicure," she said. "It's about taking forty-five

minutes where the most important thing in the world is not someone

else . . . but you."

That was the thing about my mother: just when I thought I was ready

to kill her, she'd say something that made me want to cry. I tried to curl

my hands into fists, but she threaded our fingers together. "Come to the

spa next week. We'll have a nice afternoon, just the two of us."

A dozen comments sprang to the back of my tongue: Some of us have

to work for a living. It won't be a nice afternoon if it's just the two of us. I may

be a glutton, but not for punishment. Instead, I nodded, even though we

both knew I had no intention of showing up.


When I was tiny, my mother would have spa days in the kitchen, just

for me. She'd concoct hair conditioners out of papaya and banana; she'd

rub coconut oil into the skin of my shoulders and arms; she'd lay slices of

cucumber on my eyes and sing Sonny & Cher songs to me. Afterward,

she would hold a hand mirror up to my face. Look at my beautiful girl, she

would say, and for the longest time, I believed her.

"Come to temple," my mother said. "Just tonight. It would make

your father so happy."

"Maybe next time," I answered.

I walked them out to their car. My father turned the ignition and unrolled

his window. "You know," he said. "When I was in college, there

was a homeless guy who used to hang out near the subway. He had a pet

mouse that used to sit on his shoulder and nibble at the collar of his coat,

and he never took that coat off, not even when it was ninety-five degrees

out. He knew the entire first chapter of Moby-Dick by heart. I always gave

him a quarter when I passed by."

A neighbor's car zoomed pastsomeone from my father's congregation,

who honked a hello.

My father smiled. "The word Messiah isn't in the Old Testament . . .

just the Hebrew word for anointed. He's not a savior; he's a king or a priest

with a special purpose. But the Midrashwell, it mentions the moshiach

a lot, and he looks different every time. Sometimes he's a soldier, sometimes

he's a politician, sometimes he's got supernatural powers. And

sometimes he's dressed like a vagrant. The reason I gave that bum a quarter,"

he said, "is because you never know."

Then he put the car in reverse and pulled out of the driveway. I stood

there until I couldn't see them anymore, until there was nothing left to do

but go home.



Before you can go into a prison, you're stripped of the trappings that

make you you. Take off your shoes, your belt. Remove your wallet, your

watch, your saint's medal. Loose change in your pockets, cell phone,

even the crucifix pin on your lapel. Hand over your driver's license to

the uniformed officer, and in return, you become one of the faceless

people who has entered a place the residents aren't allowed to leave.

"Father?" an officer said. "Are you okay?"

I tried to smile and nod, imagining what he saw: a big tough guy

who was shaking at the thought of entering this prison. Sure, I rode a

Triumph Trophy, volunteered to work with gang youth, and broke the

stereotype of a priest any chance I gotbut inside here was the man

whose life I had voted to end.

And yet.

Ever since I had taken my vows and asked God to help me offset

what I had done to one man with what I might yet be able to do for

othersI knew this would happen one day. I knew I'd wind up face-toface

with Shay Bourne.

Would he recognize me?

Would I recognize hurt?

I walked through the metal detector, holding my breath, as if I had

something to hide. And I suppose I did, but my secrets wouldn't set off

those alarms. I started to weave my belt into the loops of my trousers

again, to tie the laces of my Converse sneakers. My hands were still

trembling. "Father Michael?" I glanced up to find another officer waiting

for me. "Warden Coyne's expecting you."

"Right." I followed the officer through dull gray hallways. When we

passed inmates, the officer pivoted his body so that he stood between

usa shield.

I was delivered to an administrative office that overlooked the interior

courtyard of the state prison. A conga line of prisoners was walking

from one building to another. Behind them was a double line of fencing,

capped with razor wire.


The warden was a stocky man with silver hair who offered a handshake

and a grimace that was supposed to pass for a smile. "Warden

Coyne. Nice to meet you."

He led me into his private office, a surprisingly modem, airy space

with no deskjust a long, spare steel table with files and notes spread

across it. As soon as he sat down, he unwrapped a piece of gum. "Nicorette,"

he explained. "My wife's making me quit smoking and to be

honest, I'd rather cut off my left arm." He opened a file with a number on

its sideShay Bourne had been stripped of his name in here as well. "I

do appreciate you coming. We're a little short on chaplains right now."

The prison had one full-time chaplain, an Episcopal priest who had

flown to Australia to be with his dying father. Which meant that if an

inmate requested to speak to a clergyman, one of the locals would be

called in.

"It's my pleasure," I lied, and mentally marked the rosary I'd say

later as penance.

He pushed the file toward me. "Shay Bourne. You know him?"

I hesitated. "Who doesn't?"

"Yeah, the news coverage is a bitch, pardon my French. I could do

without all the attention. Bottom line is the inmate wants to donate his

organs after execution."

"Catholics support organ donation, as long as the patient is braindead

and no longer breathing by himself," I said.

Apparently, it was the wrong answer. Coyne lifted up a tissue.

frowned, and spit his gum into it. "Yeah, great, I get it. That's the party

line. But the reality of the situation is that this guy's at the twenty-third

hour. He's a convicted murderer, two times over. You think he's suddenly

developed a humanitarian streak . . . or is it more likely that he's

trying to gain public sympathy and stop his execution?"

"Maybe he just wants something good to come out of his

death.. ."

"Lethal injection is designed to stop the inmate's heart," Coyne said


I had helped a parishioner earlier this year when she made the decision

to donate her son's organs after a motorcycle accident that had

left him brain-dead. Brain death, the doctor had explained, was different

from cardiac death. Her son was still irrevocably gonehe would

not eventually recover, like people in a comabut thanks to the respirator,

his heart was still beating. If cardiac death had occurred, the

organs wouldn't be viable for transplant.

I sat back in the chair. "Warden Coyne, I was under the impression

that Inmate Bourne had requested a spiritual advisor ..."

"He did. And we'd like you to advise him against this crazy idea."

The warden sighed. "Look, I know what this must sound like to you.

But Bourne's going to be executed by the state. That's a fact. Either it

can become a sideshow . . . or it can be done with discretion." He

stared at me. "Are we clear on what you need to do?"

"Crystal," I said quietly.

I had once before let myself be led by others, because I assumed

they knew more than me. Jim, another juror, had used the "eye for an

eye" line from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount to convince me that repaying

a death with a death was just. But now, I understood that Jesus had

actually been saying the oppositecriticizing those who let the punishment

compound the crime.

No way was I going to let Warden Coyne tell me how to advise

Shay Bourne.

In that instant, I realized that if Bourne didn't recognize me, I

wasn't going to tell him I'd met him before. This wasn't about my salvation;

it was about his. And even if I'd been instrumental in ruining

his life, nowas a priestit was my job to redeem him.

"I'd like to meet Mr. Bourne," I said.

The warden nodded. "I figured." He stood up and led me back

through the administrative offices. We took a turn and came to a control

booth, a set of double-barred doors. The warden raised his hand and

the officer inside unlocked the first steel door with a buzz and a sound

of metal scraping metal. We stepped into the midchamber, and that

same door automatically sealed.

So this was what it felt like to be locked in.

Before I could begin to panic, the interior door buzzed open, and we

walked along another corridor. "You ever been in here?" the warden



"You get used to it."

I looked around at the cinder-block walls, the rusting catwalks. "I

doubt that."

We stepped through a fire door marked I-TIER. "This is where we

keep the most hard-core inmates," Coyne said. "I can't promise they'll

be on their best behavior."

In the center of the room was a control tower. A young officer sat

there, watching a television monitor that seemed to have a bird's-eye

view of the inside of the pod. It was quiet, or maybe the door that led

inside was soundproof.

I walked up to the door and peered inside. There was an empty

shower stall closest to me, then eight cells. I could not see the faces of

the men and wasn't sure which one was Bourne. "This is Father Michael,"

the warden said. "He's come to speak with Inmate Bourne." He

reached into a bin and handed me a flak jacket and protective goggles,

as if I were going to war instead of death row.

"You can't go in unless you've got the right equipment," the warden


"Go in?"

"Well, where'd you think you were going to meet Inmate Bourne,

Father? Starbucks?"

I had thought there would be some kind of . . . room, I guess. Or the

chapel. Til be alone with him? In a cell?"

"Hell, no," Warden Coyne said. "You stand out on the catwalk and

talk through the door."

Taking a deep breath, I slipped the jacket on over my clothes and

fitted the goggles to my face. Then I winged a quick prayer and


"Open up," Warden Coyne said to the young officer.

"Yes, sir," the kid said, clearly flustered to be under Coyne's regard.

He glanced down at the control panel before him, a myriad display of

buttons and lights, and pushed one near his left hand, only to realize at

the last minute it was the wrong choice. The doors of all eight cells

opened at once.

"Ohmygod," the boy said, his eyes wide as saucers, as the warden

shoved me out of the way and began punching a series of levers and

buttons on the control panel.

"Get him out of here," the warden yelled, jerking his head in my direction.

Over the loudspeaker came his radio call: Multiple inmates released

on I-tier; need officer assistance immediately.

I stood, riveted, as the inmates spilled out of their respective cells

like poison. And then . . . well... all hell broke loose.



When the doors released in unison, like all the strings tuning up in an orchestra

and magically hitting the right note the first time the bow was

raised, I didn't run out of the cell like the others. I stopped for a beat, paralyzed

by freedom.

I quickly tucked my painting beneath the mattress of the bunk and

stashed my ink in a roll of dirty laundry. I could hear Warden Coyne's voice

on the loudspeakers, calling over the radio for the SWAT team. This had

happened only once before when I was in prison; a new officer screwed up

and two cells were opened simultaneously. The inmate who'd been accidentally

freed rushed into the other's cell and cracked his skull open

against the sink, a gang hit that had been waiting for years to come to


Crash was the first one out of his cell. He ran past mine with his fist

curled around a shank, making a beeline for Joey Kunza child molester

was fair game for anyone. Pogie and Texas followed him like the dogs they

were. "Grab him, boys," Crash hollered. "Let's just cut it right off."

Joey's voice escalated as he was cornered. "For God's sake, someone


There was the sound of a fist hitting flesh, of Calloway swearing. By

now, he was in Joey's cell, too.

"Lucius?" I heard, a slow ribbon of a voice, as if it had come from

underwater, and I remembered that Joey wasn't the only one on the tier

who'd hurt a child. If Joey was Crash's first victim, Shay could very well be

the second.

There were people outside the prison praying to Shay; there were reli

gious pundits on TV who promised hell and damnation to those who worshipped

a false messiah. I didn't know what Shay was or wasn't, but I

credited him for my health one hundred percent. And there was something

about him that just didn't fit in here, that made you stop and look twice, as

if you'd come across an orchid growing in a ghetto.

"Stay where you are," I called out. "Shay, you hear me?"

But he didn't answer. I stood at the threshold of my cell, trembling. I

stared at that invisible line between here and now, no and yes, if and when.

With one deep breath, I stepped outside.

Shay was not in his cell; he was moving slowly toward Joey's. Through

the door of I-tier, I could see the officers suiting up in flak jackets and shields

and masks. There was someone else, tooa priest I'd never seen before.

I reached for Shay's arm to stop him. That's all, just that small heat,

and it nearly brought me to my knees. Here in prison we did not touch; we

were not touched. I could have held on to Shay, at the innocent crook of

his elbow, forever.

But Shay turned, and I remembered the first unwritten rule of being in

prison: you did not invade someone's space. I let go. "It's okay," Shay said

softly, and he took another step toward Joey's cell.

Joey was spread-eagled on the floor, sobbing, his pants pulled down.

His head was twisted away, and blood streamed from his nose. Pogie had

one of his arms, Texas the other; Calloway sat on his fighting feet. From

this angle, they were obscured from the view of the officers who were mobilizing

to subdue everyone. "You heard of Save the Children?" Crash said,

brandishing his homemade blade. "I'm here to make a donation."

Just then, Shay sneezed.

"God bless," Crash said automatically.

Shay wiped his nose on his sleeve. "Thanks."

The interruption made Crash lose some of his momentum. He glanced

out at the army on the other side of the door, screaming commands we

couldn't hear. He rocked back on his heels and surveyed Joey, shivering

against the cement floor.

"Let him go," Crash said.

"Let him . . . ?" Calloway echoed.

"You heard me. All of you. Go back."

Pogie and Texas listened; they always did what Crash said. Calloway

was slower to leave. "We ain't done here," he said to Joey, but then he


"What the fuck are you waiting for?" Crash said to me, and I hurried

back to my own cell, forgetting entirely anyone else's welfare except my


I do not know what it was that led to Crash's change of plan-if it was

knowing that the officers would storm the tier and punish him; if it was

Shay's well-timed sneeze; if it was a prayer God blesson the lips of a

sinner like Crash. But by the time the SWAT team entered seconds later, all

seven of us were sitting in our cells even though the doors were still wide

open, as if we were angels, as if we had nothing to hide.

There's a flower I can see from the exercise yard. Well, I can't realiy see it

I have to sort of hook my fingers on the ledge of the only window and

spider-walk up the cement wall, but I can glimpse it then before I fall back

down. It's a dandelion, which you might think is a weed, but it can be put

into salads or soups. The root can be ground up and used as a coffee substitute.

The juices can get rid of warts or be used as an insect repellent. I

learned all this from a Mother Earth News magazine piece that I keep

wrapped around my treasuresmy shank, my Q-tips, the tiny Visine bottles

where I keep the ink I manufacture. I read the article every time I take my

supplies out for inventory, which is daily. I keep my cache behind a loosened

cinder block beneath my cot, refilling the mortar with Metamucil and

toothpaste, mixed, so that the officers don't get suspicious when they toss

the cell.

I never gave it much thought before I came in here, but I wish I

knew more about horticulture. I wish I'd taken the time to learn what

makes things grow. Hell, if I had, maybe I could have started a water

melon plant from a seedling. Maybe I'd have vines hanging all over the

place by now.

Adam had the green thumb in our household. I used to find him outside

at the crack of dawn, rooting around in the dirt between our daylilies

and sedums. The weeds shall inherit the earth, he had said.

Meek, I'd corrected. The meek shall inherit it.

No way, Adam had said, and laughed. The weeds will blow right by


He used to say that if you picked a dandelion, two would grow back in

its place. I guess they are the botanical equivalent of the men in this

prison. Take one of us off the street, and more will sprout up in his wake.

With Crash back in solitary, and Joey in the infirmary, I-tier was oddly

quiet. In the wake of Joey's beating, our privileges had been suspended, so

all showers and exercise yard visits were canceled for the day. Shay was

pacing. Earlier, he'd been complaining that his teeth were vibrating with

the air-conditioning unit; sometimes sounds got to be too much for him

usually when he was agitated. "Lucius," he said. "Did you see that priest



"Do you think he came for me?"

I didn't want to give him false hope. "I don't know, Shay. Maybe someone

was dying on another tier and needed last rites."

"The dead aren't alive, and the living don't die."

I laughed. "Thanks for that, Yoda."

"Who's Yoda?"

He was talking crazy, the way Crash had a year ago when he'd started

to peel the lead paint from the cinder blocks and eat it, hoping it would

serve as a hallucinogen. "Well, if there is a heaven, I bet it's full of dandelions."

(Actually, I think heaven's full of guys who look like Wentworth Miller

from Prison Break, but for right now, I was only talking landscaping.)

"Heaven's not a place."

"I didn't say it had map coordinates . . ."

"If it was in the sky, then birds would get there before you. If it was

under the sea, fish would be first."

"Then where is it?" I asked.

"It's inside you," Shay said, "and outside, too."

If he wasn't eating the lead paint, then he'd been making hooch I

didn't know about. "If this is heaven, I'll take a rain check."

"You can't wait for it, because it's already here."

"Well, you're the only one of us who got rose-colored glasses when he

was booked, I guess."

Shay was silent for a while. "Lucius," he asked finally. "Why did Crash

go after Joey instead of me?"

I didn't know. Crash was a convicted murderer; I had no doubt he could

and would kill again if given the opportunity. Technically, both Joey and

Shay had sinned equally in Crash's code of justice; they had harmed children.

Maybe Crash figured Joey would be easier to kill. Maybe Shay had

gained a modicum of respect through his miracles. Maybe he'd just gotten


Maybe even Crash thought there was something special about Shay.

"He's not any different than Joey..." Shay said.

"Teensy suggestion? Don't let Crash hear you say that."

"... and we're not any different than Crash," he finished. "You don't

know what would make you do what Crash did, just like you didn't know

what would make you kill Adam, until it happened."

I drew in my breath. No one in prison talked about another person's

crime, even if you secretly believed they were guilty. But I had killed Adam.

It was my hand holding the gun; it was his blood on my clothes. It wasn't

what had been done that was at issue for me in court; it was why.

"It's okay to not know something," Shay said. "That's what makes us


No matter what Mr. Philosopher Next Door thought, there were

things I knew for sure: That I had been loved, once, and had loved back.

That a person could find hope in the way a weed grew. That the sum of a

man's life was not where he wound up but in the details that brought

him there.

That we made mistakes.

I closed my eyes, sick of the riddles, and to my surprise all I could see

were dandelionsas if they had been painted on the fields of my imagination,

a hundred thousand suns. And I remembered something else that

makes us human: faith, the only weapon in our arsenal to battle doubt.



They say God won't give you any more than you can handle, but

that begs a more important question: why would God let you

surfer in the first place?

"No comment," I said into the phone, and I slammed down

the receiver loud enough that Claireon the couch with her iPod

onsat up and took notice. I reached beneath the table and

yanked out the cord completely so that I would not have to hear

the phone ring.


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