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This Her Fever

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O wrangling schools, that search what fire
Shall burn this world, had none the wit
Unto this knowledge to aspire,
That this her fever might be it?

And yet she cannot waste by this,
Nor long bear this torturing wrong,
For more corruption needful is,
To fuel such a fever long.

John Donne, A Fever


***

His Eminence, James Cardinal Hickey, D.D.

Your Eminence:

I am writing to tell you about a woman in my parish in the hope that you can guide me in my attempts to minister to her. She is currently being treated for a very serious - possibly terminal - type of cancer, and is also experiencing what can only be termed as a crisis of faith. The woman is a doctor and it seems to me that she feels a need to choose between her vocation and her faith.

Her mother is a very dear friend of mine from years back, and approached me in hopes that I could help her daughter come back to the Church during this dark time. She is extremely anxious that her daughter should be reconciled with her faith. I am always grateful for a chance to help minister to those who have strayed, though I have made it clear to the mother that too much pressure can turn a troubled soul even further from the path of righteousness. To this end, I have done my best to approach the woman in a non-aggressive manner.

However, she has so far been quite resistant to what I have had to say, and seems almost offended by my presence. I don't want to push her away, but as you surely know, Your Eminence, these are the times in life when having one's heart open to the love and healing of Our Savior is most critical. I feel I must press on to be true to my calling, but I do not wish to alienate her from the Church.

I thank you for taking the time to read this. I await your guidance, and know that through Jesus all things are possible. I continue to pray on the matter.

I remain your humble servant in Christ,

Thomas McCue


***

When Melissa was killed, Maggie Scully thought it only natural that the world should stop and grieve with her. She was bewildered that horns should beep and people should laugh and babies should try and play peek-a-boo with her in the following days.

Her sons came home. Charlie, whose cell phone kept ringing with calls from cities she'd never heard of, and Bill, who guided her about town like a seeing eye dog; helping her do things like pick out a coffin and flowers. Tara had just suffered another miscarriage and couldn't travel, but she called twice a day to listen to stories about when the Scully children were small. Maggie wondered if it was harder to lose a baby you never even got to hold or a woman you thought had made it well past the danger zone.

She wondered too what her other daughter - for whom death was her bread and butter - thought of it all. She knew Dana had a clear picture in her head of what had been done to Melissa's body by the cold hands of the medical examiner. Dana heard the kinds of jokes police officers tell at crime scenes. Maybe she had even told them sometimes. Maggie wasn't sure what Dana did anymore. She wasn't even sure who Dana was anymore.

On the day of the funeral, Maggie watched them lower her little girl into a dark grave and bit her tongue against crying out that Melissa was scared of small spaces, that she had hated them as a child, and that someone had to get her out of that awful box.

Her husband's earthly remains were scattered across the wide sea he had loved and the knowledge comforted her. The world was waterlogged and when she missed him, as she often did, she imagined his essence scattered through raindrops, soaked up by trees, and swirling through the waves that buoyed the ships he had sailed on.

But Melissa was contained and finite, held in place by satin and oak. She would have hated the stiff formality and the dam of Maggie's grief broke for a moment to admit a wash of regret. Her sons made a wall behind her (in case she fainted?) and Dana squeezed her hand when the earth thumped against the hard wooden lid. It was too late now. Melissa's soul was with her Maker and ashes to ashes and dust to dust and we exalt Your name in the highest Thy kingdom come Thy will be done forever and ever, Amen.

Maggie couldn't be sure if it was simple logic or merely to preserve her own sanity, but she didn't blame Dana for Melissa's death. To do so would be akin to admitting she would have traded one for the other, and all Maggie knew was that watching Dana peer into a grave that could have been her own made the blood freeze in her veins.

Blink forward a few years. Charlie couldn't make it, but Tara's pregnant again, Bill's in town, and Maggie's sitting with Dana and discovering that having your child unexpectedly killed and watching your child die with agonizing slowness are two very different - though equally horrific - experiences. She finds herself thinking how these deaths suit her girls. Melissa, with her rash impulsivity and Dana, who measures everything thrice and still cuts with marked deliberateness.

Dark thoughts, but these are dark days.

And then there's Fox. Fox who is there even when he isn't there because his absence makes Dana anxious and distracted. Maggie wants to take her pretty, clever daughter by her bony shoulders and shake her until she can come up with some explanation for this absurd infatuation. Maggie has seen the way he touches her and - more significantly - the way she lets him.

They're sleeping together. They have to be. She knows Dana, knows her weakness for men in positions of authority. ("Paging Dr. Freud!" as her sister Olive would say.) Maggie remembers the interlude with a married professor in med school (she only discovered that by very accidentally overhearing a phone call between Dana and Melissa because she picked up the phone and obviously she couldn't just hang up because the girls would hear the click and it would just be so awkward, really), and there was that obnoxious Jack Willis when Dana broke her father's heart and joined the FBI.

But neither of those two had ever had a hold on her like this. Fox Mulder talked her daughter into putting a microchip in her neck. And this doctor, this Zuckerman fellow, hadn't batted an eyelash at it. Just sliced Dana's neck open and stuck God knows what in there. She is infuriated by her sense of helplessness, reduced to fetching ice chips and blankets because she has no miracle cures to offer like the man who holds her daughter in thrall.

"Mom," says Dana, whose voice is still stuffy. She's been chewing the ragged edge of a hangnail on one of her spidery fingers since crying in her mother's arms.

"What is it, honey?" Maggie twirls a lock of Dana's brittle hair, thinking about malpractice attorneys.

"I'd like it if you could call Father McCue."

Maggie snaps to attention like one of the middies her husband used to parade past the family. "Dana?"

"I believe that, based on the PET scan and my cessation of conventional treatments, it would be best if I were in a state of grace." Dana's voice is returning to its (often infuriating) cool neutrality.

Maggie closes her eyes for a moment, then looks at her daughter's hollow face. "I'll call him right now," she says, trying to keep the panic from creeping around the words.

"I'll be okay until morning. Right now I'd just like to rest, but if you could have him come when I get up in the morning..." She trails off casually, but the implication is unmistakable.

Maggie wants the priest there now, and she wants to keep her daughter awake until he arrives. She doesn't like the way Dana's eyes are burning too bright against her translucent skin. It makes her think of the frosted glass votives she sets out at Christmastime. Fragile shells full of fire, ringing out the year.

"It's afternoon. I'm sure it's no trouble for him to come out. I could just go ahead and -"

Dana's smile is genuine, if exhausted. "I'm not going anywhere just yet." She reaches for her mother's hand. "I promise. I just don't think I have the emotional energy left today. But if you could ask him to come first thing tomorrow, I'd be very grateful, Mom."

"Okay," Maggie says, ashamed of having needed to be reassured. "First thing tomorrow."

"I'd like to go outside for a bit. Do you think you could get the wheelchair, Mom?"

Maggie sighs. "You know Dr. Zuckerman likes you to wait at least forty-eight hours before going out into the sun after chemo."

"I haven't really seen the sky in ten days. I'll carry an umbrella."

"Your immune sys- "

"Never mind." Dana turns onto her side, her strangely luminous eyes fixed on the window. "I just want to get out of here," she mumbles against the pillow.

"You will." She arranges the blanket around her daughter's shoulders like she did when all her children were young enough to let her tuck them in. "Get some rest, Dana."

"Mom?"

"Yes?"

"I'm sorry I never told you things." She is already more than half asleep.

Maggie bites back a sob at the past tense. "It's who you've always been. Please don't apologize."

Please don't die.


***