Saturday, September 20, 2003
Even the weather betrayed me. Aqua-blue sky, not a cloud in sight. Niko and I sat in silence during the two-and-a-half hour trip north. Next week offered a new beginning, a chance to leave Boston and never look back.
I lowered the back passenger window. A light breeze ruffled farmland acres, and a full, round sun shined, burned, blazed as though this was an ordinary day. The limousine tires hit cracked asphalt, the road worn from a brutal New Hampshire winter. Birds whistled serenades. Preteens played basketball within the confines of school grounds. Young, adolescent voices carried in the crisp morning air, rustling hues of burnt orange, scarlet, and burgundy through autumn leaves. Mountains stood proudly as if they could protect us. Here, perhaps, but not in Boston, where my nightmare began eight days and six hours ago.
We drove by the Minot Sleeper Library, and my gaze narrowed on the patrons. A middle-aged woman clutched my latest novel close to her heart like a coveted treasure. Scorching heat jagged up my chest. Soon she’d enjoy my words while I endured the harshest committal.
Didn’t she know? Couldn’t she feel my pain, my anguish? Pure evil enveloped my life and then spit me out like bitterness on a delicate palate, leaving me reeling in torment.
The hearse carrying our dreams, our endless devotion, veered right through tall, iron gates and followed a winding road to the back of the cemetery.
My fingers curled around the armrest, and I shifted my sight to Niko.
Splayed hands on his knees, he turned only his head and offered a weak, faint smile. “You okay?” His voice was barely above a whisper.
To demonstrate what I thought of his stupid question, I shot him a cutting glare.
Palms up, Niko opened his arms. “What? I only asked if you were okay.”
“Seriously?” I said. “How could anyone be okay with this?”
Two funeral employees in dark suits dragged a tiny coffin from the back of the hearse. Stark white, the casket rode in their hands as the men marched over burnt, dead grass. Lowering the coffin onto two bands, they stepped away. My baby lingered above the mouth of an awaiting grave—displaying my shame, announcing my cowardice.
“We’ve gotta go.” Niko’s words churned the sickening feeling deep in my gut.
I peered through the side window, the cemetery dark and gloomy through tinted glass. The world now appeared as it should, mourning along with me.
Niko said, “Babe?”
The limo driver opened my door and startled me. He reminded me of a prison guard, hands clasped behind his back, eyes focused straight ahead. Behind him, rows and rows of ghosts, shattered lives buried deep with nothing left but a headstone to mark their existence. In the distance, an emerging sea of blue soldiered toward the grave—Niko’s fellow detectives, the ones who did nothing.
I twisted toward my husband, and a stabbing pain stole my breath. I bit my upper lip, waiting for the pang to subside. “Why are they here?”
“To pay their respects, Sage. Look, if you wanna blame someone—”
“Don’t,” I warned.
My crutches in hand, he dashed around the back of the limo to my door. Jaw clenched, I sneered at my new mode of transportation and steadied my balance with the toe of my splinted leg. I dropped my chin to my chest. Dammit. Why didn’t I fight? Why didn’t I do something, anything?
With a supportive arm around my waist, Niko coaxed me toward the gravesite. I passed him one of the crutches and rested my head against his strong chest. If only he could sweep me away, so I didn’t have to face this devastation.
I squeezed my eyes closed. I couldn’t look, couldn’t witness the finality. It wasn’t fair. I had no memories to savor. No first touch, no tiny fist gripping my finger. No first steps, first word. I never had the chance to admire a newborn’s searching eyes, gazing at the world as a wondrous place. Instead, I had the harsh reality that wicked men roamed free, leaving destruction in their wake.
I had nothing, except the faint recall of precious feet kicking my insides, yearning to break free and experience life. My baby’s lungs never had the chance to expand with oxygen-infused air. He would never know the magic of Christmas, or admire glorious lights dancing on tree limbs. My boy would not have the honor of placing a brilliant star on the top branch as his daddy lifted him so his delicate hands could reach.
For God sake, he didn’t even have a name. The headstone was marked only with, “Baby Quintano.” This was so cruel. Why did we have to endure such torture? There wasn’t much I wouldn’t do for my unborn son. But this? Dear God, not this.
Bob Jordan, the funeral director, recited the opening remarks. I cocked an ear, my grip tightening around the crutch. I slid my gaze toward Niko. Did he notice slight nuances in Bob’s pitch, the unspoken truth I insisted he conceal?
Beneath gauze bandages, sweat seeped through the multitude of stitches zigzagging across my forearms. Pain throbbed from a dislocated knee, and broken ribs labored my breath—my injuries refusing to allow a moment of repose. Thanks to a mass murderer who slipped through Niko’s grasp, tranquility no longer existed.
Tears brimmed in my husband’s red-rimmed eyes and he offered me a reassuring squeeze. “It’s almost over, babe.”
I swallowed, averted my gaze. I didn’t deserve his kindness, his love.
We huddled together opposite six Boston detectives in department dress blues. Cold stares in my direction, foreheads rippled in accusation.
Bob Jordan asked if we wanted to speak. Niko swept my hair out of my face, but I kept my head down, staring at the ground.
“I think we’re all set,” he said, tears hitching his voice.
Bob gave a slight nod and cranked a handle that lowered our child into the maw of nevermore. Hot tears slipped down the sides of my face, salt biting jagged wounds on my cheek, upper lip, and neck. The cemetery became eerily quiet. Soft gasps and muffled cries from my heart fracturing beyond repair pierced a cool September wind.
Inside I screamed, “No! Don’t take our baby! Please, stop! I can’t survive this!” Verbally, as usual, I remained silent.
As we rode through the cemetery gates, I swiveled to peer out the back windshield, a piercing ache deep in my empty womb. If only, somehow, this was just a bad dream.