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"Could we just this once nor have a Bible study moment?" Shay
"It's an example," I said. "Jesus said that when He came back to
the synagogue where He'd grown up. Let me tell you, that congregation
had a lot of questions—after all, they'd grown up with Him, and
knew Him before He started the miracle train—so before they could
doubt Him, what did He do? He gave them the words they'd been
waiting to hear. He gave them hope." I looked at Shay. "That's what
you need to do, with June."
The door to I-tier opened, and six officers in flak jackets and full
face shields entered. "Don't talk until the mediator asks you to. And
make sure you tell her why this is so important to you," I urged, lastminute
Just then the first officer reached the cell door. "Father," he said,
"we're going to have to ask you to meet us down there."
I watched them move Shay down the tier. Speak from your heart, I
thought, watching him go. So that she knows ifs worth taking.
I had already been told what they would do with him. He'd be handcuffed
and cuffed at the ankles. Both of these would be linked to a belly
chain, so that he'd shuffle along inside the human box of officers. He
would be taken to the cafeteria, which was now set up for offender
counseling. Basically, the warden had explained, when they needed to
have group sessions with violent offenders, they bolted several individual
metal boxes to the floor—and prisoners were put into these miniature
cells along with a counselor, who would sit on a chair in the
cafeteria with them. "It's group therapy," Warden Coyne had proudly
explained, "but they're still incarcerated."
Maggie had lobbied for a face-to-face visit. Failing that, she wanted
to know if we could meet on opposite sides of a glass visiting booth.
But there were too many of us, when you added in the moderator and
June, or so the administration said (never mind I'd seen families of ten
cram into one of those little noncontact booths for a visit with an
inmate). Although I—like Maggie—thought that we were starting at a
grave disadvantage if one of the participants was restrained and bolted
to the floor like Hannibal Lecter, this was the best we were going to
The mediator was a woman named Abigail Herrick, who'd come
from the attorney general's victim's assistance office and had been
trained to do this kind of thing. She and June were talking quietly on
one side of the anteroom. I walked up to June as soon as I entered.
"Thank you. This means a lot to Shay."
"Which is the last reason I'd ever do it," June said, and she turned
back to Abigail.
I slunk across the room to the seat beside Maggie. She was painting
a run in her stocking with pink nail polish. "We are in serious trouble,"
"Yeah? How's he doing?"
"He's panicked." I squinted in the dim light as she lifted her head.
"How'd you get that shiner?"
"In my spare time I'm the welterweight champion of New Hampshire."
There was a buzzing, and Warden Coyne walked in. "Everything's
He led us into the cafeteria by way of the metal detector. Maggie
and I had already emptied our pockets and taken off our jackets before
June and Abigail even realized what was going on; this is the difference
between someone who has intimate experience with a detention
facility and those who lead normal lives. An officer, still dressed in full
riot gear, opened a door for June, who continued to stare at him in
horror as she walked inside.
Shay was sitting in what looked like a telephone booth permanently
sealed shut with nuts and bolts and metal. Bars vivisected his
face; his eyes searched for mine as soon as I walked into the room.
When he saw us, he stood up.
At that moment, June froze.
Abigail took her arm and led her to one of the four chairs that were
arranged in a semicircle in front of the booth. Maggie and I filled in the
remaining seats. Two officers stood behind us; in the distance I could
hear the sizzle of something cooking on a grill.
"Well. Let's get started," Abigail said, and she introduced herself.
"Shay, I'm Abigail Herrick. I'm going to be the mediator today. Do you
understand what that means?"
He hesitated. He looked like he was going to faint.
"Victim-offender mediation is a process that gives a victim the
chance to meet her offender in a safe and structured setting," Abigail
explained. "The victim will be able to tell the offender about the crime's
physical, emotional, and financial impact. The victim also has the
chance to receive answers to any lingering questions about the crime,
and to be directly involved in trying to develop a plan for the offender
to pay back a debt if possible—emotional or monetary. In return, the offender
gets the opportunity to take responsibility for his behavior and
actions. Everyone with me so far?"
I started to wonder why this wasn't used for every crime committed.
Granted, it was labor-intensive for both the AG's office and the
prison, but wasn't it better to come face-to-face with the opposing
party, instead of having the legal system be the intermediary?
"Now, the process is strictly voluntary. That means if June wants to
leave at any time, she should feel free to do so. But," Abigail added, "I
also want to point out that this meeting was initiated by Shay, which is
a very good first step."
She glanced at me, at Maggie, and then at June, and finally Shay.
"Right now. Shay," Abigail said, "you need to listen to June."
They say you get over your grief, but you don't really, not ever. It's
been eleven years, and it hurts just as much as it did that first day.
Seeing his face—sliced into segments by those metal bars, like
he was some kind of Picasso portrait that couldn't be put together
again—brought it all back. That face, his fucking face, was the last
one Kurt and Elizabeth saw.
When it first happened, I used to make bargains with myself.
I'd say that I could handle their deaths, as long as—and here I'd
fill in the blank. As long as they had been quick and painless. As
long as Elizabeth had died in Kurt's arms. I'd be driving, and I'd
tell myself that if the light turned green before I reached the intersection,
surely these details were true. I did not admit that sometimes
I slowed down to stack the odds.
The only reason I was able to drag myself out of bed at all
those first few months was because there was someone more
needy than I was. As a newborn, Claire didn't have a choice. She
had to be fed and diapered and held. She kept me so grounded in
the present that I had to let go of my hold on the past. I credit her
with saving my life. Maybe that's why I am so determined to reciprocate.
But even having Claire to care for was not foolproof. The
smallest things would send me into a downward spiral: while
pressing seven birthday candles into her cake, I'd think of Elizabeth,
who would have been fourteen. I'd open a box in the garage
and breathe in the scent of the miniature cigars Kurt liked to
smoke every now and then. I'd open up a pot of Vaseline and see
Elizabeth's tiny fingerprint, preserved on the surface. I would pull
a book off a shelf and a shopping list would flutter out of it, in
Kurt's handwriting: thumbtacks, milk, rock salt.
What I would like to tell Shay Bourne about the impact this
crime had on my family is that it erased my family, period. What I
would like to do is bring him back to the moment Claire, four,
perched on the stairs to stare at a picture of Elizabeth and asked
where the girl who looked like her lived. I would like him to know
what it feels like to have to run your hand up the terrain of your
own body, and underneath your nightshirt, only to realize that
you cannot surprise yourself with your own touch.
I would like to show him the spot in the room he built, Claire's
old nursery, where there is a bloodstain on the floorboards that I
cannot scrub clean. I'd like to tell him that even though I carpeted
the room years ago and turned it into a guest bedroom, I still do
not walk across it, but instead tiptoe around the perimeter when I
have to go inside.
I would like to show him the bills that came from the hospital
every time Claire was sent there, which quickly consumed the
money we received from the insurance company after Kurt died.
I'd like him to come with me to the bank, the day I broke down in
front of the teller and told her that I wanted to liquidate the college
fund of Elizabeth Nealon.
I would like to feel that moment when Elizabeth was sitting in
my lap and I was reading to her, and she went boneless and soft,
asleep in my arms. I would like to hear Kurt call me Red again, for
my hair, and tangle his fingers in it as we watch television in the
bedroom at night. I would like to pick up the dirty socks that Elizabeth
strewed about the house, a tiny tornado, the same reason I
once yelled at her. I would love to fight with Kurt over the size of
If they had to die, I would have loved to have known in advance,
so that I could take each second spent with them and know
to hold on to it, instead of assuming there would be a million
more. If they had to die, I would have loved to have been there, to
be the last face they saw, instead of his.
I would like to tell Shay Bourne to go to hell, because wherever
he winds up after he dies, it had better not be anywhere close
to my daughter and my husband.
M IC HAEL
"Why?" June Nealon asked. Her voice was striped with rust and sorrow,
and in her lap, her hands twisted. "Why did you do it?" She lifted her
gaze, staring at Shay. "I let you into my home. I gave you a job. I trusted
you. And you, you took everything I had."
Shay's mouth was working silently. He moved from side to side in
his little booth, hitting his forehead sometimes. His eyes fluttered, as if
he was trying hard to organize what he had to say. "I can fix it," he said
"You can't fix anything," she said tightly.
"Your other little girl-"
June stiffened. "Don't you talk about her. Don't you even breathe
her name. Just tell me. I've waited eleven years to hear it. Tell me why
you did this."
He squeezed his eyes shut; sweat had broken out on his brow. He
was whispering, a litany meant to convince himself, or maybe June. I
leaned forward, but the noise from the kitchen obliterated his words.
And then whatever had been sizzling was taken off the grill, and we all
heard Shay, loud and clear: "She was better off dead."
June shot to her feet. Her face was so pale that I feared she would
fall over, and I rose just in case. Then blood rushed, hot, into her
cheeks. "You bastard," she said, and she ran outside.
Maggie tugged on my jacket. "Go," she mouthed.
I followed June past the two officers and through the anteroom.
She burst through the double doors and into the parking lot without
even bothering to pick up her driver's license at the control booth, trad
ing back her visitor's pass. I was certain she would rather go to the
DMV and pay for a replacement than set foot in this prison again.
"June," I yelled. "Please. Wait."
I finally cornered her at her car, an old Ford Taurus with duct tape
around the rear bumper. She was sobbing so hard that she couldn't get
the key into the lock.
"Let me." I opened the door and held it for her so that she could sit
down, but she didn't. "June, I'm sorry—"
"How could he say that? She was a little girl. A beautiful, smart,
perfect little girl."
I gathered her into my arms and let her cry on my shoulder. Later,
she would regret doing this; later, she would feel that I had manipulated
the situation. But for right now, I held her until she could catch
Redemption had very little to do with the big picture, and far more
to do with the particulars. Jesus might forgive Shay, but what good was
that if Shay didn't forgive himself? It was that impetus that drove him
to give up his heart, just as I was driven to help him do it because it
would cancel out my vote to execute him in the first place. We couldn't
erase our mistakes, so we did the next best thing and tried to do something
that distracted attention from them.
"I wish I could have met your daughter," I said softly.
June pulled away from me. "I wish you could have, too."
"I didn't ask you here to hurt you all over again. Shay truly does
want to make amends. He knows the one good thing to come out of his
life might be his death." I looked at the Constantine wire running along
the top of the prison fence: a crown of thorns for a man who wanted to
be a savior. "He's taken away the rest of your family," I said. "If nothing
else, let him help you keep Claire."
June ducked into her car. She was crying again as she lurched out
of the parking spot. I watched her pause at the exit of the prison, her
blinker marking time.
Then, suddenly, her brake lights came on. She sped backward,
stopping beside me with only inches to spare. She unrolled the window
on the driver's side. TU take his heart," June said, her voice thick. TU
take it, and I'll watch that son of a bitch die, and we still won't be
Too stunned to find any words, I nodded. I watched June drive off,
her taillights winking as red as the eyes of any devU.
"Well," I said when I saw Father Michael walking back into the prison,
dazed, "that sucked."
At the sound of my voice, he looked up. "She's taking the heart."
My mouth dropped open. "You're kidding."
"No. She's taking it for all the wrong reasons . . . but she's taking it."
I could not believe it. Following the debacle in the restorative justice
meeting, I would have more easily accepted that she'd gone out to buy an
Uzi to exact her own justice against Shay Bourne. My mind began to kick
into high gear: if June Nealon wanted Shay's heart—for whatever
reason—then there was a great deal I had to do.
"I'll need you to write an affidavit, saying that you're Shay's spiritual
advisor and that his religious beliefs include donating his heart."
He drew in his breath. "Maggie, I can't put my name on a court document
"Sure you can. Just lie," I said, "and go to confession afterward.
You're not doing this for you; you're doing it for Shay. And we'll need a
cardiologist to examine Shay, to see if his heart's even a match for
The priest closed his eyes and nodded. "Should I go in and tell him?"
"No," I said, smiling. "Let me."
After a slight detour, I walked through the metal detectors again and was
taken to the attorney-client room outside I-tier. A few minutes later, a
grumbling officer showed up with Shay. "He keeps getting moved around
like this, the state's going to have to hire him a chauffeur."
I rubbed my thumb and forefinger together, the worlds smallest
Shay ran his hands through his hair, making it stand on end; the
shirt of his prison scrubs was untucked. "I'm sorry" he said immediately.
"I'm not the one who could have used the apology," I replied.
"I know." He squinched his eyes shut, shook his head. "There were
eleven years of words in my head, and I couldn't get them out the way I
"Amazingly, June Nealon is willing to accept your heart for Claire."
A few times in my career, I'd been the messenger of information
that would change a clients life: the victim of a hate crime whose
store was destroyed, receiving reparation and damages that would
allow him to build a bigger, better venue; the gay couple who were
given the legal stamp of approval to be listed as parents in the elementary
school directory. A smile blossomed across Shay's face, and I
remembered, at that moment, that gospel is another word for good
"It's not a done deal yet," I said. "We don't know, medically, if this is
viable. And there are a whole bunch of legal hoops to jump through . . .
which is what I need to talk to you about, Shay."
I waited until he sat down across from me at the table, and was calm
enough to stop grinning and look me in the eye. I had gotten to this
point with clients before: you drew them a map and explained where the
exit hatch was, and then you waited to see if they understood you needed
them to crawl there on their own. That was legitimate, in law; you were
not telling them to alter their truth, just explaining the way the courts
worked, and hoping they would choose to massage it themselves. "Listen
carefully," I said. "There's a law in this country that says the state has to
let you practice your own religion, as long as it doesn't interfere with
safety in the prison. There's also a law in New Hampshire that says even
though the court has sentenced you to die by lethal injection, which
wouldn't allow you to donate your heart . . . in certain circumstances,
death row inmates can be hanged instead. And if you're hanged, you'd be
able to donate your organs."
It was a lot for him to take in, and I could see him ingesting the
words as if they were being fed on a conveyor.
"I might be able to convince the state to hang you," I said, "if I can
prove to a judge in federal court that donating your organs is part of your
religion. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
He winced. "I didn't like being Catholic."
"You don't have to say you're Catholic."
"Tell that to Father Michael."
"Gladly." I laughed.
"Then what do I have to say?"
"There are a lot of people outside this prison, Shay, who have no
trouble believing that what you're doing in here has some sort of religious
basis. But I need you to believe it, too. If this is going to work, you
have to tell me donating your organs is the only way to salvation."
He stood up and started to pace. "My way of saving myself may not
be someone else's way."
"That's okay," I said. "The court doesn't care about anyone else. They
just want to know if you think that giving your heart to Claire Nealon is
going to redeem you in God's eyes."
When he stopped in front of me and caught my eye, I saw something
that surprised me. Because I had been so busy crafting an escape hatch
for Shay Bourne, I had forgotten that sometimes the outrageous is actually
the truth. "I don't think it," he said. "I know it."
"Then we're in business." I slipped my hands into my suit pockets
and suddenly remembered what else I had to tell Shay. "It's prickly," I
said. "Like walking on a board full of needles. But somehow it doesn't
hurt. It smells like Sunday morning, like a mower outside your window
when you're trying to pretend the sun's not up yet."
As I spoke, Shay closed his eyes. "I think I remember."
"Well," I said. "Just in case you don't." I withdrew the handfuls of
grass I'd torn from outside the prison grounds and sprinkled the tufts
onto the floor.
A smile broke over Shays face. He kicked off his prison-issued tennis
shoes and began to move back and forth, barefoot, over the grass. Then
he bent down to gather the cuttings and funneled them into the breast
pocket of his scrubs, against a heart that was still beating strong. "I'm
going to save them," he said.
"I know God will not give me anything I can't handle.
I just wish He didn't trust me so much."
Everything comes with a price.
You can have the man of your dreams, but only for a few
You can have the perfect family, but it turns out to be an illusion.
You can keep your daughter alive, but only if she hosts the
heart of the person you hate most in this world.
I could not go straight home from the prison. I was shaking so
hard that at first, I couldn't even drive; and even afterward, I
missed the exit off the highway twice. I had gone to that meeting
to tell Shay Bourne we didn't want his heart. So why had I
changed my mind? Maybe because I was angry. Maybe because I
was so shocked by what Shay Bourne had said. Maybe because if
we waited for UNOS to find Claire a heart, it could be too late.
Besides, I told myself, this was all likely a moot point. The
chance of Bourne even being a good physical match for Claire was
negligible; his heart was probably far too large for a child's body;
there could be all sorts of compromising diseases or long-term
drug use that would prohibit him from being a donor.
And yet, there was another part of me that kept thinking: But
Could I let myself hope? And could I stand it if, once again,
that hope was shattered by Shay Bourne?
By the time I felt calm enough to drive home and face Claire, it
was late at night. I had arranged for a neighbor to check on her
hourly throughout the afternoon and evening, but Claire flatly refused
a formal babysitter. She was fast asleep on the couch, the
dog curled over her feet. Dudley lifted his head when I walked in,
a worthy sentry. Where were you when Elizabeth was taken? I thought,
not for the first time, rubbing Dudley between the ears. For days
after the murders, I had held the puppy, staring into his eyes and
pretending he could give me the answers I so desperately needed.
I turned off the television that was chattering to nobody and
sat down beside Claire. If she received Shay Bourne's heart, would
I look at my daughter but see him staring back at me?
Could I survive that?
And if I couldn't... would Claire survive at all?
I fitted myself around Claire's body, stretching beside her on
the couch. In her sleep, she curled against me, a puzzle piece fitting
back where it belonged. I kissed my daughter's forehead, unconsciously
reading it for fever. This was my life now, and Claire's:
a waiting game. Like Shay Bourne sitting in his cell, waiting for
his turn to die, we sat imprisoned by the limitations of Claire's
body, waiting for her turn to live.
So don't judge me, unless you've fallen asleep on a couch with
your ill child, thinking this night might be her last.
Ask instead: would you do it?
Would you give up your vengeance against someone you hate
if it meant saving someone you love?
Would you want your dreams to come true if it meant granting
your enemy's dying wish?
In school, I was the kind of kid who crossed her t's and dotted her is. I made
sure to right-justify my papers, so that the type didn't look ragged. I'd craft
elaborate covers—a tiny, two-dimensional working guillotine for my essay on
A Tale of Two Cities; a science lab on prisms with the header rainbowed in
multiple colors; a scarlet letter for . . . well, you get the picture.
To that end, putting together a letter to the commissioner of corrections
reminded me a little of my days as a student. There were multiple
parts involved: the transcript of Shay Bourne attesting that he wanted to
donate his heart to the sister of his victim; an affidavit from Claire Nealon's
cardiac surgeon, stating that she did indeed need a heart to survive.
I had made a call to facilitate a medical visit for Shay, to see if he was a
match for Claire; and I had spent an hour on the phone with a UNOS coordinator,
to confirm that if Shay gave up his heart, he could pick the recipient.
I fastened all these letters together with a shiny silver butterfly
clip and then turned back to the computer to finish my note to Commissioner
As evidenced by the letter from the defendant's spiritual advisor,
Father Michael Wright, execution by lethal injection will not only
prevent the defendant from his intention of donating his heart to
Claire Nealon—it also interferes with his practice of religion—a
blatant violation of his First Amendment rights. Therefore, under
the New Hampshire criminal code 630:5, subsection XIV, it would
be impractical for the commissioner of corrections to carry out the
punishment of death by lethal injection. A sentence of death carried
out by hanging, however, would not only he allowed by the criminal
code, but also would allow the defendant to practice his religion up
to the moment of his execution.
I could imagine, at this moment, the commissioners jaw dropping as
he realized that I had managed to piece together two disparate laws in a
way that would make the next few weeks a living hell.
Furthermore, this office would be pleased to work in conjunction
with the commissioner of corrections to facilitate what needs to be
done, as there are tissue matches and medical testing to be completed
prior to the donation, and because time is of the essence
during the organ harvest.
Not to mention—I don't trust you.
It is imperative to settle this matter swiftly, for obvious reasons.
We don't have a lot of time to work this out. Because neither Shay
Bourne nor Claire Nealon have a lot of time left, period.
Maggie Bloom, Attorney
I printed out the letter and slipped it into a manila envelope I'd already
addressed. As I licked the envelope, I thought: Please make this
Who was I talking to?
I didn't believe in God. Not anymore.
I was an atheist.
Or so I told myself, even if there was a secret part of me that hoped
I'd be proven wrong.
People always think they know what they'd miss the most if they had to
trade places with me in this cell. Food, fresh air, your favorite pair of jeans,
sex-believe me, I've heard them all, and they're all wrong. What you miss
the most in prison is choice. You have no free will: your hair is cut in one
style, like everyone else's. You eat what's being served when it is given to
you. You are told when you can shower, shit, shave. Even our conversations
are prescribed: If someone bumps into you in the real world, he says
"Excuse me." If someone bumps into you in here, you say "What the fuck,
motherfucker" before he can even speak. If you don't do this, you become a
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