"What did you tell her about me?"
"The truth. That you were a great hero."
Rene and Michael ~ "Half Life"
They call her to identify the body and, as much as it breaks her heart to do so, she is grateful. They hadn't let her see Michel when he'd died, murdered by another inmate during a prison brawl. They hadn't let her say goodbye before they'd put him in the cold, dark earth. At least this time, she will be able to say goodbye.
She has left her husband and child playing in a nearby park. Roberto had wanted to come with her, to support her, but she had not wanted that. This was her duty, not his. She did not want her family in this sad, lonely place.
A female morgue attendant greets her with professional warmth, and then she is ushered into a small room. The walls and floor are white, the only relief coming from the gleam of silver trolleys and drawers. There are two men in the room, waiting. They are wearing matching dark suits, their heads clean-shaven with military-style precision. She thinks they must be police, but they look like no police officers she's ever seen. They both watch her as she enters the room, but it is the taller man who addresses her. "Mrs. Dautry?"
"I'm Detective Frayne." His dark brown eyes study her briefly. He doesn't smile, and she is strangely relieved. "Thank you for coming."
"How did it happen?" she hears herself ask, although she knows it makes no difference. The man who had cherished her as a sister is dead. Her last link to Michel gone.
"Gunshot wound to the chest. We suspect it was a robbery that went wrong."
Her brain processes the words, but her eyes are fixed to the sheet-covered gurney in the middle of the room, and her heart begins to thump. She hears a voice ask if she's ready. She nods, even though she knows she will never be ready for what she's about to do. Her blood grows cold as they draw back the pale green sheet, then she sees his face, so familiar, so alien in this strange place with its unforgiving lights. The tears come quickly, but she pays them no heed. She has a lifetime to mourn. Here and now, she has to do her duty.
His long blond hair is tangled, his pale eyelashes almost invisible against the pallor of his skin. She cannot see the bullet wound that took his life, and for that she is thankful. She touches his shoulder. His skin is cold and waxy. She had thought that was just a myth, something you hear on television so often that you assume it is true.
Michel's skin would have felt just the same, she thinks.
"Yes," she says quietly. "That's Rene Dian."
The sheet is drawn up once more, hiding his face from her eyes.
"What happens now?" she hears herself ask.
The morgue attendant clears her throat. "We usually cremate -"
"No," she says abruptly. It had been a very long since Rene had practiced any religion other than that of dissent, but she knows how he was raised. "No cremation."
The morgue attendant shrugs, and the two dark-suited men exchange a glance. The taller man addresses her politely. "As he has no living relatives - "
"He has me." She surprises herself with the quiet strength of her voice. "I will make the arrangements." She looks around the room, her heart pounding, silently daring them to disagree. When her eyes meet those of the tall man, she sees an odd flicker of recognition in his face, as though she has suddenly reminded him of someone else. After a brief glance of silent communication with the other man, he nods.
"As you wish."
A few weeks later, she visits St. Catherine's cemetery to leave flowers on two graves – one old, one new – and offers up a prayer for two souls. Her shoes sinking into the carefully tended grass, the scent of sunshine and lavender filling her senses, she stands alone and remembers. She looks at the names engraved into the smooth white marble for a long moment, then turns and walks away.
That night, she once again tells her son his favourite bedtime story. The story of his brave uncle Michel, who died a hero. That night, however, as she looks as the glowing face of her son, the child who may never have been born if she had not been rescued from her broken childhood, she also speaks of his noble Uncle Rene.
Because heroes come in many forms.