It was, as wake services go, unremarkable. Marion Klein had been a faithful wife for twenty-one years, a gracious mother for seventeen, and a genuinely loved member of the St. Veronica parish staff for nearly six. She had more than what some might consider the usual number of close friends, due both to her highly visible position as parish secretary and her natural affinity for smiling one of those smiles that surges up easily and often to signal a deep and contagious appreciation of life.
Her easy disposition was a joy not only to her husband, Ryan, but also to her children, Truman and Dawn, both teens and both the only children of a St. Veronica parish staff member not named after a Roman Catholic saint—a meaningless aside that Father Mark Cleary had rolled his eyes over in mock dismay on more than one occasion during the half-dozen good years that he and Marion worked so closely together.
Since it had been her nature to find reason to smile in what others knew must be difficult circumstances, everyone wondered how Marion would handle the spreading cancer that her doctor whispered upon her exactly three years ago this month. But as everyone who came to the MacInnes Funeral Home agreed, she handled it as well as anyone could. She fought it with chemistry and good humor until a few days into June when she finally lay too weak to walk and too toxic to pretend and let Father Mark—her pastor, employer, and friend—anoint her with the oil of a sad and quiet blessing for what Father Mark said was her peace and healing but for what Marion knew was, in fact, her death.
Now, with a thin, gray Tuesday rain sprinkling the beginnings of another humid Michigan summer and 124 friends and relatives gathered to visit and cry and smile and say good-bye to a dear friend and companion, Father Mark recalled Marion’s cheerfulness and offered a prayer that she now, at last, would be completely and finally healed in God, the One in whom, for all of eternity, “Marion’s joy will be complete.”
He felt the loss of her company personally, and everyone knew it. It was appreciated. Then he invited others to share some memory and a number of them did, including Marion’s sixteen-year-old son, who told about having to eat tomato soup and bacon at his mom’s insistence every time he broke a fever, “to get salt back into my system”, and how his mother’s jokes had helped him through so many hard times of his own, even though he was only a teenager, and that he would really, really miss her. His thirteen-year-old sister talked briefly about carnivals and how her mom had always laughed a lot, and how that is the way she would like to be, and she would be, even though she was crying now. Others cried with her. Her dad chose to avoid speaking, not for lack of memories but from the weight of too many, too quickly passed. Ryan and Marion had been married in college, and this was a hard, hard night.
After fifteen minutes of memories, which passed quickly, Father Mark prayed his final blessing, and the service quietly ended. He shook hands with Ryan and Marion’s brother, Kerry, who lived on the west side of the state but seldom visited. Dawn hugged the priest briefly and then her dad, long and hard. Nearly a hundred people came slowly up to the casket, some in pairs, to kneel beside Marion’s body and make a quick sign of the cross, a few to touch her rigid hand, some hovering very near for a long moment of reflection or discomfort or both, some nodding quickly and moving on. One leaned over and seemed about to kiss her, but didn’t, whispering several words instead. Most stood at a safe distance and simply stared, perhaps thinking of Marion’s death, perhaps thinking of their own.
Good-nights were exchanged. Doors opened. Umbrellas were raised. Giles MacInnes and his two assistants, Dave Harmon and Giles’ own daughter, Melissa, still in college and still in training, stood in black and thanked everyone for coming. They smiled, but not too much.
The mourners filed into the night carefully, as though afraid something else in their life might break. Ryan Klein finally cried, barely, and Dawn and Truman did, too. They spoke briefly to Father Mark and to Giles about the next day’s service. Then it was time to close.
Melissa went to the office to note the evening’s service for her files. Dave Harmon quickly straightened the chairs that had been rearranged during the service, then checked the restrooms for lost articles. He found nothing. He slipped on his coat, said good-night to Giles, and walked with Melissa to the parking lot, locking the front door behind them. Giles, by his own choice, was also responsible for final lockup. He glanced quickly around the now-silent viewing room. He had an efficient eye. The room was in generally good order. It always was. He would leave the red-padded folding chairs in place, probably too many for the morning, but better too many than too few. A black silk scarf had slipped to the floor next to the couch. His assistant hadn’t noticed it. There was always something. Giles picked the scarf up with a casual sweep of his hand and placed it on the coat-rack by the door, where someone would certainly see and retrieve it if they made their way back for the morning service. If not, no matter.
With that, he straightened two more chairs, glanced briefly at his watch, and turned just in time to see Marion Klein’s crystal rosary slide with a terrible grace, like the world coming to an end in sickening slow motion, over the back of her rising left hand and across her trembling, rose-polished fingernails to drop with a click as tiny as death on her slowly stirring chest.
It was still raining when Father Mark got back to his rectory at St. Veronica’s. He considered the old house “his” in more ways than one. He and the rectory had arrived on earth in the same year. Now they were both fifty-one, and, in their own ways, starting to show it.
He was an athlete out of training, a trim man of average build and average physical skills who spent more time reading mysteries over the past few years than he spent playing hockey, his once-favorite pastime, and who dismissed serious thought about the way his knee sometimes ached or how noticeably his short, black hair was giving way along the sides to signs of gray. In moments of doubt, he would compare himself to the rectory, with its leaking pipes and loose bricks and relentless squeaks and rattles, and at those times he would decide that he was still doing pretty well.
His parish, like his house, was small. It once had twenty-six hundred registered families, now it was down to fourteen hundred. Royal Oak’s south-end commercial expansion had knocked down a lot of nearby homes. But still, fourteen hundred was a lot to handle for the young priest and his only associate, the very young Father Steve Kennedy.
He eased his dark-blue sedan into his garage and clicked the remote control clipped to his sun visor. The garage door groaned as it moved—another thing he didn’t do. He made his way out of the garage into the dark drizzle and jogged across the shimmering concrete patio to the back door of the house, smiling on the way, thinking about how desperate he must have become to try and compare himself favorably to a fifty-one-year-old garage.
The kitchen phone was ringing in the dark as he unlocked the back door—an uneasy sound for some reason, a phone ringing in the pitch black of an empty room, but he didn’t bother to hurry. The answering machine would handle it if Father Steve wasn’t home, and he probably wasn’t. Father Steve was a helpful young priest—tall, red-haired, athletic, and better-looking than anyone has a right to be, and, partly for all of those reasons, very good at working with the parish’s teens and younger kids. But he wasn’t around the rectory much in the evenings. If he wasn’t at necessary meetings he’d be with friends or his nearby family.
Father Mark reached for the light switch just inside the kitchen door as his own voice told a caller that no one was home. Weird feeling, his own voice in the dark, saying to him and to someone else far away, “We’ll be happy to get back to you as soon as possible.”
He clicked on the light. No dirty dishes; thank you, Steve.
He unbuttoned his raincoat and had started toward the phone when the answering machine beeped once and the voice that he would hear every day for the rest of his life, the woman’s voice, high-pitched and brittle and pleading, said, “Father! Oh Jesus! It’s Helen MacInnes!”
He stopped, his hand frozen on his coat’s top button, his eyes locked on the phone.
“Giles’ wife from the funeral home!” Her voice was even louder now, and shaking. “I need. . . please go back to the funeral home right away when you come in! Giles is in so much trouble! But the lady can’t still be alive because he knows when someone’s dead, for God’s sake!”
Father Mark still didn’t move. He would wonder, in the days to come, why he froze, whether it was because he didn’t want to interrupt her message, or because he was so tired and didn’t want to deal with a hysterical call after such a long day, or whether it was because the edge of terror in the words “but the lady can’t still be alive. . .” made him afraid, even then.
The caller was crying. “He’s. . . I don’t know if he’s gone crazy or what! But, oh good Lord!”
Now his mind was racing, trying to find a picture of Giles MacInnes’ wife. He had met her at least twice, but only briefly. He remembered her as being thin and very tall, like her husband, only with sandy hair. And neat. And very quiet.
But she wasn’t quiet now.
“I know it’s impossible,” she was crying, “but Giles just called me, Father, from the funeral home. . .” She dropped her voice suddenly, now whispering, as though her secret was too terrible to let escape. “. . . and he said that Marion Klein is alive! And Giles is the one who found her!”
He was holding his breath and startled into a strange kind of detachment, like he might be dreaming or listening to a TV show left on in a distant room. But the voice that he didn’t want to talk with was very near and very real, and it had just said that Giles MacInnes had found Marion Klein alive, just now, after the service, after he had left the funeral home. But he knew that was not true, of course, because he knew that Marion Klein was dead.
The voice agreed, talking faster. “He’s serious, Father, but she can’t be alive. Only she is, he says, and he swears to God! The poor man’s beside himself, and I’m going to go over there myself as soon as I can, but he’s called 911, and I know you were just there, too, so I told him I was going to call you because he’s calling his father in Florida, and he’s crying!”
She was still crying, too, now harder than before.
The call wasn’t a prank; that was the next thing he realized. Rule out kids trying to be funny. But what could possibly be going on?
“Please come back if you can”, the voice begged. “Even if you get this late. Giles trusts you, and he knows that you know that the woman is dead. Or was dead.” A pause, and then, “Oh God, I’m sick. I’ve got to get a sitter. I don’t know. Please hurry, Father!”
There was a click, a pause, a double beep, and the answering machine whirred in rewind and clicked again, its red light still flashing on and off, telling the priest that someone else had called, requesting attention.
He took in a deep breath and exhaled hard. Was it really Helen MacInnes? On hallucinogens, maybe? Or broken down; gone crazy? He shook his head and pushed Replay.
The machine clicked and beeped, and another woman’s voice spoke to him, this one soft and apologetic. “Hi, Father Mark. I hate to bother you but thought I’d better call. It’s Kathy Draner, and I’m sorry, but I’m not going to be able to make the Mother’s Club lunch deal tomorrow. Kid stuff. . .”
He deleted it. His heart was racing; he hadn’t noticed that before. Russian roulette flashed into his mind. How many messages would he go through before Giles’ wife was back?
He didn’t wait long. He had to listen again.
“Father! Oh Jesus! It’s Helen MacInnes!. . .”
He heard the whole message again, and then a third time. He listened to her say, “Marion Klein is alive”, and, “Giles is the one who found her”, and he listened to her beg him again to “please hurry, Father.” He wondered for a second if the call had actually come in before the wake service took place, but realized just as suddenly that he’d just walked in on her as she was talking, just two minutes ago.
He spread his left hand over his face and rubbed his eyes. He’d have to think more clearly than that.
First of all, he knew that Marion was dead. That was that. He’d even touched the skin of her hand, and it was cold and hard, and he knew that feeling. But it was a live call, just happening, and not just kids messing around, but an older woman, someone very serious.
He snapped open the parish file next to the phone, found “MacInnes Funeral Home”, and punched in the number. The line was busy. He tried a second time. Still busy. He wished Steve would come back. He pulled out the city phone book. He pictured Helen MacInnes again, staying off to the side at the funeral home those few times he’d met her, everything about her very neat, standing straight as a rope. A tightly wired lady. But if it was her, and if she was at home and hysterical, was she just flipping out or was she on drugs? Or, most likely at all, was it Giles who had taken something, after the service, when everyone had left, Giles doing some drug or other and then hallucinating and calling his wife to pass along his chemical nightmare?
MacAllister. MacBaine. MacInnes, Giles, Troy.
He punched in their home number. It was busy, too.
It was 8:56. The call had been placed just short of 8:45.
He remembered how the voice said Giles was calling his dad in Florida to tell him that a dead woman was alive again. After the wake service. After the embalming. He thought of that phone call, and he fought against a smile. That would be some conversation!
He tried both numbers one more time, but got busy signals again and faced it; he’d have to go back and see for himself. However he cut it, somebody needed serious help, maybe quickly, and they had called him to ask for it.
Another picture flashed through his mind: Helen MacInnes calling back in five minutes and saying in a very perky voice, “Hi, Father. Helen MacInnes here. Oh, never mind.”
He tried to smile at that image, but couldn’t make it happen. The voice had been too serious. Too much in pain. And what it said had been too disturbing.
He drove north on Hilton—his windshield wipers slapping in a steady rhythm, his mind tumbling through new possibilities and new questions.
Giles MacInnes was a man he’d known for a long time, and Father Mark doubted very much that the man took drugs. Which left a nervous collapse as a strong possibility. But he had seemed so calm and satisfied just a half hour ago. Which left his wife, if it was his wife on the phone; what would her history be with drugs, or booze, or nerves, or schizophrenia, or something?
If nothing else, he thought, it would make a good priest story, the next time he and his friends got together. He pictured himself in his occasional racquetball game with Ed Prus from Guardian Angels, saying: “ ‘And she’s alive’, this voice said.”
He felt very nervous and wished that he didn’t, and for the first time he let his mind drift toward the bizarre thought: what if Marion hadn’t really been dead, hadn’t been embalmed or anything, and what if she had just regained consciousness, or even climbed out of her casket and walked away? Impossible, he knew, but he wondered, what would it be like to wake up in a casket? And then he thought, I’d rather be dead than have them think I was, and wake up in a casket with cancer all through me again.
He drove through an amber light at Twelve Mile Road, the point at which Hilton changes into Campbell Lane for its trip through the pricier northern suburbs. Still light traffic, still steady rain. He turned left on Normandy toward Crooks Road, where Giles MacInnes’ funeral home lay a half mile north of Normandy.
He wondered what would happen with the law if a person like that would really turn out to be alive. The coroner would have a field day, is what would happen. Somebody signed a death certificate. Fremont Hospital would be involved. She had probably been put in a morgue, where he knew the temperature was kept about forty degrees. But that would probably kill her in itself, he thought, keeping her like that overnight, which they did.
Or at least they said they did.
The light turned red at Crooks. He slowed, saw no traffic nearby, and turned right. “Lord,” he whispered, “let me know how to deal with this when I get there.” And that simple prayer caught his attention. It was the first time he thought to say a prayer about what he was in for, and he found himself wishing he thought about praying sooner when he or somebody else needed help. He wished it would come more naturally.
It was at times like this, just in the quick, fly-by moments when traces of what he saw as his spiritual inadequacies snapped their heads up and grinned at him, that he found himself wondering what happened to his priesthood the way he had envisioned it would be way back when he was first ordained. Back when he was still playing hockey.
Crooks Road. No traffic coming by in front of him. He paused at the red light, breathed a deep breath, the funeral home was coming up soon.
He could already see the red and blue emergency lights a quarter of a mile north, on the right-hand side. He could see the outline of the funeral home lit up red and blue, and he could see the lights bouncing across the wet, black pavement and into some bushes and up the sides of the rain-slicked trees, shaking the night with their red-and-blue worry, and he heard himself whisper a tight, “God!”
Someone had taken whatever had happened seriously enough to call for help. Not just messing around, not just calling the rectory and letting it go at that.
He gripped the steering wheel tighter. It’s just somebody gone over the edge, he said to himself. I’m a priest. I’ve seen this before.
There was an empty red-and-white Advanced Life Support vehicle and a single, empty, gunmetal blue Royal Oak police cruiser near the side entrance to the building, all of their lights still flashing. As he turned into the parking lot a radio in the cruiser squawked at him, and then fell silent again.
He pulled past the vehicles, swung to the building edge of the parking lot, and turned off his engine. Then, clutching his unbuttoned coat tightly against his chest to protect himself against whatever was about to happen, he splashed through the falling red and blue splinters of rain toward the silent funeral home where he had prayed, not even sixty minutes before, that Marion Klein would not really die, but would live forever.
There was no motion in the foyer, and no sound. There was only Giles MacInnes, sitting on the edge of the couch behind a shining brown table with a crystal dish filled full of red and white candies in its center.
He was facing the door. He did not acknowledge Father Mark’s entrance. He just stared straight ahead, like a portrait of a man dying from the inside out. He looked like he had been waiting on that same couch forever. He looked like he would never move again.
Father Mark approached the undertaker slowly, without speaking. He wondered why he didn’t see the emergency medical technicians and the police. Then he stopped.
From the visitation chapel up the stairs and down the hallway to his right, from the place where he knew that the body of Marion Klein still lay, voices could be heard, and the clinking and scraping of metal on metal. And in that surrealistic moment of distant sounds, he realized that the medical technicians and the police were in the chapel with Marion Klein’s body, and that they were using their life support equipment and they were not scoffing, laughing, and were not coming out quickly.
He put his hand against the wall for support. This time he whispered, “Jesus.” This time he was asking for help.
Giles tilted his head at the sound of the priest’s voice. He noticed him and thought about what his presence meant, and then he whispered very slowly, as though to someone else, far away, “I had to open her mouth.”
Father Mark felt his legs weaken.
Right now, he decided, before his heart pounded any harder, before it became any harder for him to take a deep breath, before he had to sit down himself, he had to go and see what was causing the clinking of the metal and the murmur of the voices that came from the visitation chapel up the stairs and down the hall to the right.
He turned and moved on unsteady legs down the hallway.
And then he was there.
He saw two blue-uniformed paramedics, a Royal Oak policeman, and a stretcher in front of Marion’s casket. He saw the policeman craning his neck to study the face of the lady who had been moved from the casket to the stretcher. He saw an IV stand that stood as tall as the tallest of the men, and for the second time he heard himself breathe a sharp “Jesus!”
The policeman heard the sound and glanced at the pale-looking priest. That was all. The paramedics never looked up.
Even from the back of the room he could see the clear drops of fluid dripping into the line, telling him that Marion was on an open IV, and he knew that an open IV was for a living person, not for a corpse, and he knew that it was true. Marion was really alive, or at least they thought she was alive, these men who knew how to tell. He felt a wave of weakness rush over him. He reached instinctively to hold onto the back of the nearest chair.
She’s unconscious, he thought, but she’s alive. It was really true, and he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what to think.
His friend was really alive. She was covered to her neck with a sheet and surrounded by equipment, all of it saying that she was alive. She was attached to oxygen and breathing it in, and to three lines of an EKG monitor, and to the IV that was dripping.
He started toward her, his mind racing, willing his body forward. Then he became aware of a voice at the front of the room saying important things: one of the paramedics talking to someone by radio, saying softly, “That’s if she comes to.”
He continued slowly, now practically shaking with questions. He wondered how she could have been declared dead in the first place. He wondered why she hadn’t been embalmed, getting all the way here, to a funeral service. He wondered how he could have missed it. He wondered why she and her family had to go through all this terror only to have her wake up, and now to die from cancer all over again in another day or week, or two weeks or three. He wondered how Ryan and the kids would take this news, and realized that they almost certainly didn’t even know it yet. The police and the hospital call the family when somebody dies, but would any of them think to call Ryan because Marion was still alive?
He’d have to call the family himself, he thought, just to make sure. But not yet. He reached from chair to chair and row to row, steadying himself as he went, making sure, moving closer.
And then he could see her face. She had an oxygen tube hooked to her nostrils. Her eyes were closed, but her mouth was hanging open. Mark saw two brass wires jutting out from between her lips—two twisted brass wires curving up toward the overhead lights, one from inside her upper lip, the other from inside her lower lip; two yellow wires, looking like two living things, like two blades of metal grass growing horribly from inside Marion’s gums.
He remembered Giles saying that he had to “open her mouth”. He felt nauseated. He felt faint. The wires had been attached inside Marion’s mouth, then probably twisted together, but to do what? To keep her mouth closed? But now Giles had separated them and opened her mouth, and they looked like they were alive and growing toward the ceiling because Marion Klein was still alive.
He heard a sharp voice saying, “Yeah, 125 over 70, honest to God.”
He felt like he had to sit down and did it suddenly and awkwardly, falling into the nearest chair just five rows from where the world didn’t make any sense anymore.
The paramedic with the radio transmitter assured the Emergency Care physician one more time that all of Marion’s indications were stable and they were bringing her in. Just ten minutes, he said.
Father Mark thought, don’t let her wake up here. And not on the way to the hospital. That would be so awful!
The second paramedic and the officer gathered up medical bags and the transmitter and hurried out the door. The paramedic who remained looked grim. He nodded to the priest, finally, without words, and quickly folded a light-green blanket over Marion’s body. Then he double-checked her IV and the small oxygen monitor that was still on her fingertip.
Father Mark wondered when the police officer would be phoning in his incident report, and wondered what he would say.
The technician and officer were back in a matter of seconds, moving quickly. Then the three men were on familiar ground, packing up to leave, every movement quick and professional.
Just for a quick prayer, a blessing, something, Father Mark wanted to get to Marion’s side before she was taken away. It was what a priest should do, and what a friend should do. But when he tried to stand again his head was so light that he thought he might pass out, so he held onto the chair in front of him and sat down again, closing his eyes to try and pray silently.
One of the paramedics said with finality, “That’s it.” They had covered her tightly with the green blanket to protect her against the rain and the night and against being caught up again in her own death. They were already wheeling her past the priest and up the aisle to the door. He did not get to touch her. He reached out with his left hand as the stretcher rushed by him and said, weakly, “God bless you, Marion”, and she was gone.
Then he heard another voice cry out from down the hall, a high-pitched woman’s voice that he recognized, shouting, “Giles!”
Helen MacInnes had burst in from the parking lot and come face-to-face with the medical team rushing with the stretcher toward the front door. She cried for her husband and reeled backward, hurling herself away and to one side, trying desperately to escape whatever it was that was happening to this woman and to her husband, and to her children and to her world. Her face was white and ghastly.
There was a sharp, “Excuse us, ma’am!” as the two paramedics rushed Marion passed the reeling woman and out the door.
Giles rose in front of the couch, focusing on Helen but hopelessly unsure about what he should do.
Helen began to sag at the knees, and the police officer jumped aside to support her. He held her steady by her upper arms and shot a hard glance at Giles, silently demanding help. He would not wait long.
Helen saw Giles looking at her and spun toward him, twisting free from the officer’s grip, her knees firm again, her right hand reaching out, begging support.
The officer saw his chance and escaped as the whoop of a siren sounded outside.
Doors slammed. Another siren joined the first in uneven screams as the Life Support Unit and the police cruiser with their reds and blues and living but unconscious Marion Klein left to spread their high-speed panic south on Crooks Road, all the way to Fremont Hospital.
The phone in the office was ringing. It was a distant office, down the hall to the left, and with the office door shut it was a distant ring. No one moved to answer it. Enough was enough.
Helen held Giles, and they sat down together slowly on the couch like a single, heavy, aged figure. Both were crying. They were holding hands. The phone in the office kept ringing.
Helen began to rock in slow, emotional waves—slight at first, then more pronounced—and she began to cry. She gathered herself up suddenly, trying to be a strong companion to her struggling husband; then she sagged into tears again, simply rocking at her husband’s side, back and forth—the helpless wife, unable to bear so much pain and confusion.
In fact, Father Mark thought, she was the helpless wife. And in fact, Giles was the helpless husband. And in fact, he was the helpless priest. Marion Klein had grown toxic with a raging cancer. She had stopped breathing, been examined at Fremont Hospital by competent doctors, and declared legally dead. She had been kept in a morgue at forty degrees for nearly twenty-four hours and delivered to a funeral home. She had been wired with brass wires and dressed for burial and prayed over and mourned and God only knew what else; he was afraid to think what else.
But her breathing was now regular. Her color looked normal. Her flesh was soft enough for insertion of an IV. Her blood was flowing, and she was alive.
He realized that he was crying, too.
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