A knock came at the door, tentative at first, and then bolder. The old Monsignor did not like door chimes. But he wasn’t there to answer the knock, he’d already retired for the night, and no wonder because it was getting on ten-thirty. Assistant priest Father Joseph Luger looked up from the Catholic newspaper of the diocese he was reading. Who now so late? The knock came again, resolute but not heavy. Father Luger got up from his chair in the living room of the rectory and started for the front door. “Coming,” he said.
He opened the door to see a young woman standing there. Not actually a woman, a teenage girl who looked vaguely familiar. She had long, unkempt blonde hair, large eyes that looked frightened, and a pale face. “Excuse me, Father,” she said.
“Yes, what is the matter?” He almost said, “child,” but he wasn’t so far off in age as she appeared to be.
“I need to talk to you, Father,” she said. “I need to go to Confession.”
Because she looked so distraught, he drew her inside the rectory door, a few steps past it, and closed the door.
“Confessions are held every Saturday afternoon,” he said.
“I have to go to Confession now, Father.”
Without answering her, he studied her for a few moments. Something obviously had happened for her, he could see in her eyes and the way she held her slim body, tensely, yet determinedly. “Do you go to St. Mark’s?” he asked. That was the parochial school next door to the church.
“Yes, Father. I’m in your religion class.”
Now he felt remiss that he hadn’t recognized her at first. “You’re Angela and you sit in the back and you never say very much.”
“Yes, Angela Perrault. I’m sorry, Father, to disturb you so late and outside of Confession times, but I have to go to Confession tonight.”
“Has something happened?”
He waited but she did not say more. He could hear the sound of her breathing.
Still, he temporized. “Isn’t it late for you to be out? Do your parents know where you are?” He was also, in some small corner of his mind, cognizant of propriety. The Monsignor would’ve given her short shrift.
She didn’t answer him, only kept her large fear-filled eyes on his.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll hear it in the church in the old way. I’ll get my stole. Wait here.” He did not want to sit knee-to-knee with her here in the new way of Confession.
In a few moments he was back with the narrow band of purple and lace about his neck. He took her through the part of the rectory that led to the door that opened into the church. He could still hear her breathing. He wanted to tell her to relax, that nothing in her young life could be so terrible, that is, any sin she had committed. But he would save that for after he heard what it was. Young people he might have thought. Young women on the brink of womenhood. Probably—most likely—she had let her boyfriend go too far. Matters sexual were mostly the burden of what got poured, hesitatingly, into his ears by young people.
The church looked beautiful at night, he again thought upon entering it now with this agitated girl. It was in both darkness and light for street lamps shone through the stained glass windows, and there were the ever-burning red votive candles, plus the sacramental light on the altar. He led her past it, both of them pausing to genuflect. Outside the confessional, he told her to go into a pew for a few moments while he went into the center enclosure to prepare himself and say a prayer. Then she should come in to one of the side enclosures, which, almost silently, she did. He blessed himself and opened the grill between him and her. She, on the small kneeler underneath the grill.
For several moments, she said nothing. Neither could see each other’s face clearly although there was a small, subdued light up over his head but none in her enclosure. And then she began the ritual words of confession every Catholic child is taught from the time they are seven years old, the age of reason, and make their First Communion.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been (a period of time) since my last confession.” And then comes a recounting of sins and usually but not always how many times these sins have been committed. The confession is followed by the words, “And I believe that is all, Father.”
He had a brief, almost lightning-fast reflection of his own before she said a word: He had been in this parish posting for only a year. It had not been, if he had been able to choose, his first choice. The demographics of the parish were lower middle class, Irish, Italian, and German, and the physical characteristics of the school, St. Mark’s (grades first through twelfth), and the church itself, were, like many other similar conglomerations (as he thought of them) declining. Enrollment at the school was down, many of the parents could not come up with the tuition, but the Monsignor being lenient, there were many free-loaders, including as always those steadfast Catholics who, as the old saying went, had a baby in the spring and another way, way late in the fall. Father Luger, who was from a French-Canadian family, had higher aspirations for himself. There was a hierarchy in the church in this large western city wherein young priests like himself could find favor if they possessed certain charismatic gifts. Put simply, these gifts were oratorical talent, and a keen, almost Cure d’Ars-like prescience at divining the secrets of people’s hearts, both of these fueled by passion for the faith. He remembered a young priest when he was himself a boy, named O’Sullivan, whose sermons riveted one’s backbone to the pew’s back, and if one were close enough, one might get flecked by a drop of spittle that flew off Father O’Sullivan’s lips, so impassioned did he become in his exhortations. He was an Archbishop now. Father Luger would like nothing better than, sooner or later—hopefully the former—be on some AB’s staff. Then, who knew where God’s will might take him…
His confessant began her recitation: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been two weeks since my last Confession. During that time I have killed someone.”
His first reaction was anger, that he had been routed out for a joke or a dare or something in very bad taste, something actually sacrilegious. He visibly started. Then he put his face close to the obscuring grill. “Did I hear you correctly?” he asked coldly.
The girl drew her face back a little. “Yes, Father, I am confessing that I have killed someone. I am sorry for it and need absolution. You have told us in class that there is no sin God will not forgive.” Her voice quavered but it was still determined-sounding.
“Hold on,” he said. “This is serious, not a joke. You are absolutely confessing that you have committed the sin of murder?”
“Yes, Father.” Meekly, her eyes cast down.
“Whom did you kill?”
“Someone I have wanted to.”
“Because. I had to.”
The priest sat back in his rather uncomfortable chair. He felt the box he was in was not large enough for him to think or even to breathe.
He turned back to her. “You know it’s a sin to lie, Angela. And graver yet to lie in the confessional.”
She was silent. Her face seemed paler to him, that is, he could see her better as though she had a faint luminescence.
“What is the worst sin, Father, to lie or to kill someone?” she asked.
“Well—” he was brought up a little short by the incongruity of her question. “There is no commandment that says ‘You shall not tell a lie.’ So, of course, the fifth commandment, ‘Thou shall not kill’ is by far the worst sin. But there is the eighth commandment, ‘Thou shall not bear false witness,’ and that one, I am sure, encompasses lying.”
“You have said in class the eighth commandment means to ‘slander our neighbor.’”
“Yes, strictly interpreted it means that.”
“People lie all the time, like white lies. And there are fibs.”
“Yes, those aren’t so serious because they’re more often told to spare someone’s feelings. But why have you switched from the sin of murder to lying? Are you lying to me now about killing someone?”
“Father, I am confessing to the sin of murder. Can God forgive me?”
Father Joseph Luger felt damp in his clothes and the collar around his neck too tight. “That depends,” he said, “as you know from your catechism. It depends on your sincere contrition and resolution not to commit that sin again. But let’s talk more about this murder you say you’ve committed. Besides being a grave sin, it’s a matter for the police. What about that?”
“I came here first,” Angela said. “Then, I suppose—” and she appeared to shrug as though it were nothing—“I’ll talk to the police.”
“You haven’t told me who it was you killed—man, woman, or child—and why you did such a thing.” He wanted to add, “and why you are making a mockery of the confessional.”
“It doesn’t matter, does it Father? I mean, for my confession.”
His patience was nearing an end. “This is preposterous. Of course it matters. You need to tell me all the details.” Unless you are making them up as you go along. Despite his incredulity that this shy, gentle, seventeen-year-old student could possibly kill another person, a part of him was intrigued, overwhelmingly, and veering like a runaway car toward the cliff’s edge of reason. A quick, involuntary regret flashed through his mind: he could not tell a living soul of this.
Angela seemed to gain equanimity in the face of his frustration. She did not answer his last outburst but brought up something else he’d undoubtedly said in religion class.
“When are our sins forgiven, Father? I mean, despite contrition and resolutions. Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Sins of all of humankind. Then and now and in the future.”
His thoughts, again involuntarily, flashed to an image he carried in his mind:the three crosses, on a promontory, the sky dark and charged with lightning, and the air filled with claps of thunder as all creation protested the monstrous enormity of the crucifixion. Everyone who has this image in them feels such a pang of shame and sorrow they quickly try to banish it.
“Yes,” he said, quietly. “That is absolutely true. Our sins are forgiven before they are ever committed.”
Both stayed silent for long moments. Then Father Luger said, “For your penance, say the rosary for the intention of world peace. You may say it in your own time.” Then he began the words of absolution:
…Through the ministry of the church, may God grant you pardon and peace. And I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Thank you, Father.”
Angela left the confessional. She dipped her fingers in the holy water font, blessed herself, and left the church.
Father Luger listened to her footsteps on the terrazzo floor. Then he came out and knelt before the altar. He said a very short prayer and then returned to the rectory where he helped himself to two fingers of Monsignor’s Scotch. Then he went to bed where he tossed and turned most of the night.
Everyone was asleep when Angela returned home. Home was a roomy bungalow, larger inside than it appeared to be from the outside. There were two bedrooms on the main floor, and a large master bedroom in the basement which should not be called a basement because it was too luxurious for that name. Besides Gary’s and her mother’s bedroom was a family room, an opulent bathroom, and a mirrored bar showcasing Gary’s marksmanship trophies. It was almost exclusively Angela’s parents’ domain for they were party-givers and liked their “cocktails” as Angela’s mother called them. But all was quiet now. Angela went into her bedroom which was across the hall from her sister, Emma’s, bedroom.
She sat on her bed and undressed. She took her nightgown from under her pillow, pulled it over her head, and left her clothing in a rosette on the floor. She went into the bathroom and brushed her teeth. She saw on her watch it was almost eleven-thirty. Tick-tock, tick-tock. No, that was the trouble with digital time. She thought it would be neat to have a big Grandfather clock that bonged out the hours and whose inner whirrings one could hear. Over other house noises.
Angela returned to her bedroom and turned down her bed. Then she went into Emma’s bedroom. It was much frillier than her own. Lots of dolls and stuffed animals. She’d gone through that period herself. Emma was deep in her small child’s slumber. With only a bit of difficulty, Angela gathered her up in her arms, inhaling her warm fragrance, and made her way back to her own room where she put Emma into her bed. She pulled the covers over her. She looked at her sister for a few moments in the faint light that came in from the hallway. She went back into Emma’s bedroom and took up a stuffed turtle. It was adorable. She returned and placed it close by Emma’s cheek. Then she kissed the cheek. One more thing. She took it from the place where she’d hidden it. Its heft was reassuring. She went out of the room, closing the door to its full latch.
She got into Emma’s bed which had cooled a little, stretched her feet down, lying on her back. She wondered how long but she wasn’t afraid she’d fall asleep. It wasn’t that she had too much on her mind because her mind had no thoughts in it at all.
Father Luger. She liked to say his name in the soft, French way, Lujhere. Her mind was very quiet, only wondering just a tiny bit…when?
Ten Years Later
At a Medecins sans Frontieres Clinic on the Syrian/Iraqi Border
Her dark eyes were huge and so was her belly in her child’s body. Writhing on the gurney, she cried out words in Arabic. Dr. Ahmad Ghazi raised his eyes to those of his colleague beside him, unfortunately new on the job, a job that no one should ever have to be schooled in. Her name was Jane Browne, and she’d arrived at the clinic a fortnight ago. That she was young was to the good because stamina might be more important than experience here.
“She’ll never pass the head vaginally,” Ghazi said. “But we hardly have the means to do a section. Not enough plasma, and an epidural might lower her blood pressure too much.” He put his hands again on the girl. “She scarcely has pubic hair.” And he swore, in Farsi.
The young woman doctor recalled the sketchy case history. The child, one of many of a distraught mother and a father who’d left the family to join the revolution in Aleppo, had been raped by one or more Al Qaeda that had overrun their small Syrian village. “But we have to, don’t we?” she said. “She can’t go on in such a labor.”
Dr. Ghazi nodded. So the child, whose name was Zada, was put under by general anesthesia, her mother, who waited elsewhere in the clinic with several of her other children, was told, and those who would assist with the caesarean section took their stations. The small body was draped and the instruments arrayed. Dr. Ghazi chose a carbon steel scalpel and made a vertical incision from just below the navel to the top of the pubic bone. A traverse incision would have been better but the child was not wide enough to provide a large enough opening that way. A second incision opened her uterus, and Ghazi ruptured the amniotic sac. The openings in the small body swelled with blood. Quickly, the surgeon lifted the fetus out, cut the umbilical cord, and clamped it.
Despite her youth and inexperience, Jane Browne had acquired the ability to focus almost completely upon the demands of the moment. But now, clammily damp under the mask about her mouth and chin, and the bandana around her head, other, unwelcome thoughts came. It was hard to control the trembling of her hands when she received the baby from Ghazi. She handed it off to a surgical aide and began to suction blood away so the inner incision could be stitched. Staples would be used on the outer incision.
Unfortunately—or not—depending on one’s view of such matters, the young mother did not survive. Her blood pressure dropped beyond the monitor’s ability to read it, and she went into cardiac arrest. The infant, who was not all that large except for its head in her nascent womb, yowled lustily once it had been spanked on its behind. Dr. Ghazi wearily said, “Another child for the little mother’s mother to worry about. She, herself, isn’t old enough to be a grandmother. Chances are, once put into her arms, it won’t see the light of many days.”
“What do you mean?” Jane asked. “Isn’t it perfectly healthy?”
The older doctor shrugged. “For now. But it could suffocate soon, a victim of early crib death. And a funeral will be held and a few tears shed. That’s how it goes and who can blame these poor people?”
They were stripping off their surgical clothes and washing up.
“Then all the more am I sorry we couldn’t save the mother,” Jane said. “She would have loved the baby boy, don’t you think?”
“Who can say? You did well. But you’re pale as a ghost. You can’t let it get to you, you know.”
“I’ll be all right. After I have some wine and listen to some music.”
Ghazi seemed to consider something for a moment. “You know what I do sometimes after something like this? Well, of course, you couldn’t know. So I’ll tell you. I drop by the mission church and make a visit. It’s cool and restful in there and if the padre is around, he might have a cheerful word to say. You don’t have to be Catholic or any religion. How about it? What to try it as a palate cleanser?
Jane said, “I think I prefer the wine. I used to be Catholic. But religion doesn’t do anything for me anymore. Thanks, maybe some other time.”
And the two went their separate ways.
Jane’s way led to her billet and Ghazi’s to the church. Not that he didn’t need and want a drink too, but it could wait. The church, St. Gregory’s, was a small one, Byzantine in style with a few small minarets atop it. At any time of the day or night people could be in there because life in this place needed all the alleviation it could get. He went in and eased himself into a pew. A service was being conducted. It was Benediction. Two priests were on the altar; the old priest and the other a most welcome sight to the weary doctor.
The younger priest looked almost like a native, so burnt was he from the sun. He had short black hair and black eyes and a trim beard to complete the swarthy look. He wore a short-sleeved white tunic that emphasized the deep bronze of his arms. Father Joseph Luger, pronounced “Lujhere.”
After Benediction was over and Luger came back before the altar from the sacristy, he went to Ghazi waiting in the pew. “Bon soir,” he said.
“I wish,” the doctor replied. “It hasn’t been a good day. But evening calls for a drink. Thank God.”
“Drinks? Oh. Only one. But it was tough.”
“Come, I have just the remedy.”
The two went to a small anteroom next to the rectory where Father Luger was in temporary residence. He brought out a bottle of Courvoisier and two glasses. They sat almost knee-to-knee in worn leather chairs.
‘I don’t know why either one of us is here,” Ghazi said.
Luger poured the cognac and handed a glass to the doctor. They touched them together and then drank.
“Because,” the priest said, “we are renegades, and there’s a bounty on our heads.”
“Is that from High Noon?”
Luger laughed. “I don’t know. What happened today that’s got you in a funk? I meant to come there but I had to go to Kubij. An HB visited a small marketplace. But before he got to the heart of it, he stepped on an IED.”
“How bad was it?”
“No one but the human bomb.”
“Poetic justice. Isn’t that what it’s called? What did you do, give him last rites?”
The priest looked down for a moment. “It was a child. There wasn’t enough left for rites. But the people were shaken so I gave them a little talk.”
“Why are we here?” Ghazi repeated.
“Because—” Luger held up his glass, “we are honorable men, I suppose. Except, we are like fingers in the dike.”
“It’s hopeless, you think? Armageddon? Is that what Rome thinks?”
“The revered Francis has not personally shared his thoughts with me. But yes, Rome is on high alert. What we’re seeing here is a persecution unlike any that’s gone before. Even in the Dark Ages. ISIS is sworn to wipe Christianity from the face of the earth.”
“But they’re also killing any Muslims that don’t share their perverted beliefs. You forget that I am a Pakistani of the old school, Allah be praised.”
The priest smiled at his friend. “I haven’t forgotten. But when push comes to shove, where will you be?”
“You speak too much in allegories. Do you mean the Last Stand? Do you think it will be like that, Muslims of no matter what sect slugging it out with Christians of all sects?”
“Peut-etre. Leaving allegories, I understand you have a new doctor. Does he or she have a strong stomach?”
“A she. Jane Browne. She did pretty well today and it was rough. Something so elemental as childbirth turned sad and ugly. She’s a lapsed R.C., by the way. I asked her to come with me here but she said religion didn’t do anything for her.’ So, there you have a possible proselytite.”
“The Mid-East is full of those. When they are in extremis they may welcome my services.” And the priest grew thoughtful, a propensity of his that his good friend the doctor noted and appreciated but could not help feeling curious about. He knew only a little of the priest’s background. He was not a Jesuit or even a Redemptorist as most of the zealots here in the priesthood were. Not that he knew all there was to know about the clergy or the oligarchic—to his way of thinking—church they served.
In his reverie, Luger held his glass of cognac almost absentmindedly so that it could spill which would be a shame.
Dr. Ghazi knew that he had come overseas two years ago with the Catholic Relief Services, an organization that did heroic work in the refugee camps strung along the Syrian borders. Over two hundred thousand people, mostly the aged, women and children, had had to flee their homes in Syria because of the devastating revolution between the rebels and the Assad government that had been going on for over four years. But he knew very little of the priest’s personal background other than that he was French-Canadian. Oh, yes, now something niggled at his mind, a scrap. One of many that were always flying about among a rotating staff of heterogeneous individuals who’d answered some kind of a personal “call.” Like running off to join the French Foreign Legion. He took another sip of his liqueur attempting to recall it. Disobeying his bishop, financial malfeasance, or an indiscretion with a woman? Well, he was certainly handsome so that emotionally fragile women, the kind that sought a closer tie to a “spiritual advisor” might get ideas about him, but he couldn’t recall what it was. And besides, it was too lugubrious a thought for now, at the end of a trying day. Besides, Luger was out of his brown study and looking with a smile at the doctor.
“But so close by, I’m tempted,” he said. “So I will come to the clinic some day soon.”
“What in the name of Allah are you talking about, ‘tempted’?”
“To meet your new doctor. And possibly put in a good word for de Lawd.”
“Good luck with that. Even though we struggled together for over an hour with blood and guts, to say nothing of the emotional demands, I have no take on young Dr. Jane Browne. She seemed remote, somehow. Jane Browne. That’s as bad as your John Doe.”
“Does ‘Brown’ have an ‘e’ on it?”
After a moment’s reflection, Ghazi nodded. “I think so.”
“Well, there you go. Lifts the name out of anonymity.”
“How I treasure these weighty talks with you,” the doctor said.
Luger smiled but it seemed like an after-thought smile. The reflective look had come back upon his sun-darkened features, and his eyes, as black as wet licorice, did not reveal a lot.
“Speaking of ‘remote…’ You know, I worry about you.” Ghazi said.
“Physically, mentally, or emotionally? Oh—or spiritually? I think that’s a separate area.”
The doctor emptied his glass and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He made to rise from his chair. Morning came too early and he needed his rest after a good supper, which his house boy would have ready for him.
“That last, I think.”
The priest drew back his head and frowned.
“There’s something biblical about you, almost. Like fate is holding the sword of Damocles over your head,” Ghazi said.
“I think it was a mistake for you to have been educated in Britain.”
Ghazi set down his glass on a table beside him. “I wish I’d known you before. Because I think you are a very different man here than what you used to be in America. But you brought something from there with you. N’est pas?”
“Obviously. It’s called an accumulation of experiences. I think you are weary and overly febrile from your day. Shall we call it one? I have to be in Al Kamal tomorrow early and surely Mali is wondering about you.”
The doctor arose from his chair. “Yes, I will go. But aren’t you curious? I know I am.”
Jane Browne had been assigned to a room in a barracks-like structure where two other women were also lodged. One was another doctor, Regina Gilbert, fifty-something in age, a senior staff member, and the other, Sally Dunlap, a twenty-something serving with Caritas Internationalis. The other two had been at the Medecins Sans Frontieres mission hospital in Hamar more than half a year longer than Jane. Regina—“Gina”—was crisp and authoritative, not given to saying much except when she did she could go on for quite a while. Sally was intense and devoted to her cause of helping suffering humanity, and her every other word invoked God’s blessing on whatever required it at the moment. Only Sally was there when Jane came into the quarters from the hospital, and she greeted her effusively.
“Oh, good, I’m glad you’re in time for supper. I hope they serve something better than what it’s been lately because I’m starving. But I shouldn’t say that with all these undernourished people around. God forgive me. Hey, you look kind of washed out?” Sally’s voice had a way of going up at the end of a declarative sentence.
Jane sank down onto a daybed. “You go, I need a glass of wine first and to unwind.”
Sally only drank the diluted wine used at religious services. She “tsked” over Jane for a moment. “Do you want me to pray with you first?”
“Ah, that’s all right. But thank you.” Jane gave her a small smile. Something more seemed to be needed for despite her desire to go to the mess hall, Sally lingered.
“We had a tough one today,” Jane said. “A little girl in labor whom we lost.” Ordinarily, she would not have talked about what went on in the hospital, but Sally’s kind way was hard to resist.
“What was her name?” Sally asked.
“Zada. Maybe twelve years old.”
Sally’s face, usually lit with her glow from within, turned sorrowful. She reached out and pressed Jane’s hand. “Zada is happy now, restored to her glorious body, and free of pain.”
Although Sally’s words caused a reaction in Jane like a steel door dropping down with a clang, she again managed a smile. Yet, in some strange way, even though her roommate was saying things she was not in agreement with, she felt strangely comforted from the sorrow she’d felt over the child. She gave Sally a playful shove. “Go on now to the mess hall and I’ll come soon.”
Sally turned to go. At the doorway, she met the third resident of the room, Gina, who brushed by her with scarcely a nod. Sally rolled her eyes at Jane and went out the door.
Without saying hello to Jane, Gina went to a cabinet and took out a bottle from a top shelf, having to stretch her arm and rise up on her toes. Jane almost said, “Let me get that for you,” but held her tongue. Whereas Sally was easy, being with Gina, especially just the two of them, made Jane feel she was stepping through a mine-field. The woman had a temper and was given to moods; just a short acquaintance with her had shown this to Jane.
Gina turned around with the bottle of whiskey in her hand. “What a fucking day I’ve had. I think I’ll get very drunk, do you mind?” And she laughed, but not happily. “Sorry. You look like death warmed over yourself. Learning the ropes, eh? Well, Ghazi is a good teacher if a trifle soft-hearted.”
“Yes, Dr. Ghazi is a good teacher,” Jane said.
“I heard about your little kid that bled out.”
Jane nodded. “And I heard about your two patients from Homs. Were they in an explosion?”
“No. Yes. You could call it that; a barrel bomb filled with sarin.”
“Oh, my God! Don’t people exposed to that have to be treated immediately?”
“Yes, they were, in Aleppo. But they also had third-degree burns so they were sent here—others went elsewhere—and Gleickman and I did some debridgement.” Gina closed her eyes as she said this as if she could block out scenes.
“Oh,” Jane sighed. “The practice of medicine in the Middle East.”
“It’s not something you can really get used to,” Gina said. She poured Scotch into a glass and brought it over to Jane on her daybed. “Slug this down. It’s a good anesthetizer.”
“Thanks.” Jane had finished her wine and accepted the Scotch but didn’t want to drink it. It tasted “smoky” to her. She raised the glass to her mouth and pretended to sip. Gina didn’t appear to notice. But she came over and sat on her bed about five feet away from Jane’s.
“I’m sorry to sound so sour, and I’m sure you’re an idealist or you wouldn’t be here. Of course that won’t last long. One thing is that you don’t snore and that’s good. I’m afraid I do, and you’re nice not to tell me.”
Jane said, “I’m asleep before my head hits the pillow so you could be playing the Brandenburg Concerto and I wouldn’t notice.”
Gina pulled out a pack of cigarettes from the breast pocket of her khaki doublet. She didn’t bother to offer one to Jane because no doctor in their right mind smoked except here some of them did. Gina inhaled her first draw so deeply that not much of it came back out. “Drink up,” she said, “and tell me about yourself. This may be the first time we’ve had to talk alone.”
Jane put the glass to her lips again and mimicked a sip. Gina reached out and took the glass from her, put it to her own mouth, and emptied it. “There,” she said, “not a problem.” She leaned back and crossed her legs, letting some of her ashes fall on the floor. “I’m all ears.”