Chapter Fifty

Joshua lay on a narrow metal table, his body eternally still. He looked as though he were peacefully asleep, his handsome young face filled with secret, far-off dreams. Jennifer had seen that expression a thousand times as Joshua had snuggled into his warm bed while Jennifer had sat at his side, studying the face of her young son, filled with a love that was so strong it choked her. And how many times had she gently tucked his blanket around him to protect him from the cold of the night?

Now the cold was deep inside Joshua's body. He would never be warm again. Those bright eyes would never open again and look at her, and she would never see the smile on his lips, or hear his voice, or feel his small, strong arms around her. He was naked beneath the sheet.

Jennifer said to the doctor, "I want you to cover him with a blanket. He'll be cold."

"He can't - " and Dr. Morris looked into Jennifer's eyes and what he saw there made him say, "Yes, of course, Mrs. Parker," and he turned to the nurse and said, "Get a blanket."

There were half a dozen people in the room, most of them in white uniforms and they all seemed to be talking to Jennifer, but she could not hear what they were saying. It was as though she were in a bell jar, shut off from the rest of them. She could see their lips moving, but there was no sound. She wanted to yell at them to go away, but she was afraid of frightening Joshua. Someone was shaking her arm and the spell was broken and the room was suddenly filled with a roar of sound, and everyone seemed to be talking at once.

Dr. Morris was saying, "...necessary to perform an autopsy."

Jennifer said quietly, "If you touch my son again, I'll kill you."

And she smiled at everyone around her because she did not want them to become angry with Joshua.

A nurse was trying to persuade Jennifer to leave the room, but she shook her head. "I can't leave him alone. Someone might turn out the lights. Joshua is afraid of the dark."

Someone squeezed her arm and Jennifer felt the prick of a needle, and a moment later a feeling of great warmth and peace engulfed her, and she slept.

When Jennifer awakened, it was late afternoon. She was in a small room in the hospital and someone had undressed her and clothed her in a hospital gown. She rose to her feet and dressed and went looking for Dr. Morris. She was supernaturally calm.

Dr. Morris said, "We'll make all the funeral arrangements for you, Mrs. Parker. You won't have to - "

"I'll take care of it."

"Very well." He hesitated, embarrassed. "About the autopsy, I know you didn't mean what you said this morning. I - "

"You're wrong."

During the next two days, Jennifer went through all the rituals of death. She went to a local undertaker and made the funeral arrangements. She selected a white casket with a satin lining. She was self-possessed and dry-eyed and, later, when she tried to think about it, she had no recollection of any of it. It was as though someone else had taken over her body and mind and was acting for her. She was in a state of deep shock, hiding behind its protective shell to keep from going insane.

As Jennifer was leaving the undertaker's office, he said, "If there are any special clothes you would like your son buried in, Mrs. Parker, you can have them brought in and we'll dress him."

"I'll dress Joshua myself."

He looked at her in surprise. "If you wish, of course, but - " He watched her leave, wondering if she knew what it was like to dress a corpse.

Jennifer drove home, pulled the car into the driveway and entered the house.

Mrs. Mackey was in the kitchen, her eyes red, her face twisted with grief. "Oh, Mrs. Parker! I can't believe - "

Jennifer neither saw nor heard her. She moved past Mrs. Mackey and walked upstairs into Joshua's room. It was exactly the same. Nothing had changed, except that the room was empty. Joshua's books and games and baseball and skiing equipment were all there, waiting for him. Jennifer stood in the doorway, staring at the room, trying to remember why she had come there. Oh, yes. Clothes for Joshua. She walked over to the closet. There was a dark blue suit she had bought for him on his last birthday. Joshua had worn it the evening she had taken him to dinner at Lutece. She remembered that evening vividly. Joshua had looked so grown up and Jennifer had thought with a pang, One day he'll be sitting here with the girl he's going to marry. That day would never come now. There would be no growing up. No girl. No life.

Next to the blue suit were several pairs of blue jeans and slacks and tee shirts, one with the name of Joshua's baseball team on it. Jennifer stood there running her hands aimlessly over the clothes, losing all track of time.

Mrs. Mackey appeared at her side. "Are you all right, Mrs. Parker?"

Jennifer said politely, "I'm fine, thank you, Mrs. Mackey."

"Can I help you with something?"

"No, thank you. I'm going to dress Joshua. What do you think he would like to wear?" Her voice was bright and cheerful, but her eyes were dead.

Mrs. Mackey looked into them and was frightened. "Why don't you lie down a bit, dear? I'm going to call the doctor."

Jennifer's hands moved across the clothes hanging in the closet. She pulled the baseball uniform from the hanger. "I think Joshua would like this. Now, what else will he need?"

Mrs. Mackey watched helplessly as Jennifer went over to the dresser and took out underwear, socks and a shirt. Joshua needed these things because he was going away on a holiday. A long holiday.

"Do you think he'll be warm enough in this?"

Mrs. Mackey burst into tears. "Please, don't," she begged. "Leave those things. I'll take care of it."

But Jennifer was already on her way downstairs with them.

The body was in the mortuary's slumber room. They had placed Joshua on a long table that dwarfed the small figure.

When Jennifer returned with Joshua's clothes, the mortician tried once again. "I spoke to Doctor Morris. We both agree that it would be much better, Mrs. Parker, if you would let us handle this. We're quite used to it and - "

Jennifer smiled at him. "Get out."

He swallowed and said, "Yes, Mrs. Parker."

Jennifer waited until he had left the room and then she turned to her son.

She looked into his sleeping face and said, "Your mother is going to take care of you, my darling. You're going to wear your baseball uniform. You'll like that, won't you?"

She pulled the sheet away and looked at his naked, shrunken body, and then she began to dress him. She started to slip his shorts on him and she recoiled from the icy cold of his flesh. It was as hard and stiff as marble. Jennifer tried to tell herself that this piece of chill, lifeless flesh was not her son, that Joshua was away somewhere, warm and happy, but she was unable to make herself believe it. It was Joshua on this table. Jennifer's body began to shake. It was as though the cold inside Joshua had gotten inside her, chilling her to the marrow. She said fiercely to herself, Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!

She took deep, shuddering breaths, and when she was finally calmer she resumed dressing her son, talking to him all the while. She pulled his shorts on, then his trousers, and when she lifted him up to put his shirt on, his head slipped and fell against the table and Jennifer cried out, "I'm sorry, Joshua, forgive me!" and she began to weep.

It took Jennifer almost three hours to dress Joshua. He was wearing his baseball uniform and favorite tee shirt, white socks and sneakers. The baseball cap shadowed his face, so Jennifer finally laid it on his chest. "You can carry it with you, my darling."

When the undertaker came and looked into the room, Jennifer was standing over the dressed body, holding Joshua's hand and talking to him.

The man walked over and said gently, "We'll take care of him now."

Jennifer took one last look at her son. "Please be careful with him. He hurt his head, you know."

The funeral was simple. Jennifer and Mrs. Mackey were the only ones there to watch the small white coffin being lowered into the freshly dug grave. Jennifer had thought of telling Ken Bailey, for Ken and Joshua had loved each other, but Ken was no longer in their lives.

When the first shovelful of dirt had been thrown on the coffin, Mrs. Mackey said, "Come along, dear. I'll take you home."

Jennifer said politely, "I'm fine. Joshua and I won't be needing you any more, Mrs. Mackey. I'll see that you get a year's wages and I'll give you a reference. Joshua and I thank you for everything."

Mrs. Mackey stood there staring as Jennifer turned and walked away. She walked carefully, standing very straight, as though she were going down an eternal corridor wide enough for only one person.

The house was still and peaceful. She went up to Joshua's room and closed the door behind her and lay on his bed, looking at all the things that belonged to him, all the things he had loved. Her whole world was in this room. There was nothing for her to do now, nowhere for her to go. There was only Joshua. Jennifer started with the day he was born and relived all her memories of him.

Joshua taking his first steps...Joshua saying car-car and Mama, go play with your toys...Joshua going off to school alone for the first time, a tiny, brave figure...Joshua lying in bed with the measles, his body racked with misery...Joshua hitting a home run and winning the game for his team...Joshua sailing...Joshua feeding an elephant at the zoo...Joshua singing Shine On, Harvest Moon on Mother's Day...The memories flowed on, home movies in her mind. They stopped on the day Jennifer and Joshua were to leave for Acapulco.

Acapulco...where she had seen Adam and made love with him. She was being punished because she had thought only of herself. Of course, Jennifer thought. This is my punishment. This is my hell.

And she started all over again, beginning with the day Joshua was born...Joshua taking his first steps...Joshua saying car-car, and Mama, go play with your toys...

Time slipped away. Sometimes Jennifer would hear a telephone ring in some distant recess of the house, and once she heard someone knocking at the front door, but those sounds had no meaning for her. She would not allow anything to interrupt her being with her son. She stayed in the room, eating nothing and drinking nothing, lost in her own private world with Joshua. She had no sense of time, no idea how long she lay there.

It was five days later that Jennifer heard the front door bell again and the sound of someone pounding on the door, but she paid no attention. Whoever it was would go away and leave her alone. Dimly she heard the sound of glass breaking, and a few moments later the door to Joshua's room burst open and Michael Moretti loomed in the doorway.

He took one look at the gaunt, hollow-eyed figure staring up at him from the bed and he said, "Jesus Christ!"

It took all of Michael Moretti's strength to get Jennifer out of the room. She fought him hysterically, punching him and clawing at his eyes. Nick Vito was waiting downstairs and it took the two of them to force Jennifer into the car. Jennifer had no idea who they were or why they were there. She only knew that they were taking her away from her son. She tried to tell them that she would die if they did this to her, but she was finally too exhausted to fight any longer. She fell asleep.

When Jennifer awakened, she was in a bright, clean room with a picture window with a view of a mountain and a blue lake in the distance. A uniformed nurse was seated in a chair next to the bed, reading a magazine. She looked up as Jennifer opened her eyes.

"Where am I?" It hurt her throat to speak.

"You're with friends, Miss Parker. Mr. Moretti brought you here. He's been very concerned about you. He'll be so pleased to know you're awake."

The nurse hurried out of the room. Jennifer lay there, her mind blank, willing herself not to think. But the memories began to return, unbidden, and there was nowhere to hide from them, nowhere to escape to. Jennifer realized that she had been trying to commit suicide without actually having the courage to do it. She simply had wanted to die and was willing it to happen. Michael had saved her. It was ironic. Not Adam, but Michael. She supposed it was unfair to blame Adam. She had kept the truth from him, had kept him ignorant of the son who had been born and who was now dead. Joshua was dead. Jennifer could face that now. The pain was deep and agonizing, and she knew it was a pain that would be with her for as long as she lived. But she could bear it. She would have to. It was justice, demanding its payment.

Jennifer heard footsteps and looked up. Michael had come into the room. He stood there, looking at her with wonder. He had been like a wild man when Jennifer had disappeared. He had nearly been out of his mind for fear that something had happened to her.

He walked over to her bed and looked down at her. "Why didn't you tell me?" Michael sat down on the side of the bed. "I'm sorry."

She took his hand. "Thank you for bringing me here. I - think I was a little crazy."

"A little."

"How long have I been here?"

"Four days. The doctor's been feeding you intravenously."

Jennifer nodded, and even that small movement caused great effort. She felt inordinately weary.

"Breakfast is on the way. He gave me orders to fatten you up."

"I'm not hungry. I don't think I ever want to eat again."

"You'll eat."

And to Jennifer's surprise, Michael was right. When the nurse brought her soft-boiled eggs and toast and tea on a tray, Jennifer found she was famished.

Michael stayed there and watched her, and when Jennifer was finished Michael said, "I've got to go back to New York to take care of a few things. I'll return in a couple of days."

He leaned over and kissed her gently. "See you Friday." He slowly traced his fingers across her face. "I want you well, quick. You hear?"

Jennifer looked at him and said, "I hear."

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