ROOM OF TEARS by Linda Merlino
Out of tragedies come heroes and miracles…
At 9:59 a.m. on September 11, 2001, Diane O’Connor’s life as a firefighter’s wife changes forever shattering her faith. She writes daily of her sadness and four decades later she still keeps a note she wrote on 9/11 to her husband, Billy, hanging on her kitchen cabinet in Queens, the paper yellowed with age.
In the summer of 2041, Diane invites Friar Antonio Ortiz to her home. He is a man destined to become counsel to the first American pope—her son, Peter. Antonio asks no questions and arrives in secret, promising to wait nineteen years until Peter’s papal election before passing Diane's journal to him. Only then will Billy’s story be told, along with answers to Peter’s questions about his father’s last days.
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“Billy is gone . . .”
—Journal entry, 9/11/2001
Queens, New York, July 2041
Diane O’Connor and Father Antonio Ortiz met for the first time at the front door of her home in Queens. She smoked, or so he thought, given the burnt smell greeting him as she ushered him inside. A striking woman dressed in beige slacks and a flowered blouse, she was not as tall as he expected, maybe a few inches over five feet. Diane extended her hand, the fringe of her ruffled cuff hiding all but her fingers, which were long and frail. She wore no jewelry except for a plain gold wedding band, and as she took his summer coat, he noticed how loose-fitting her clothes hung on her thin frame.
An antique hat stand was the repository for his panama while his coat went deftly onto a hanger and into a closet, along with his valise. Once done with housekeeping she stood back and looked at him, her head cocked to one side and her eyes wide and bright with little trace of aging. When she had taken in the breadth and width of him, she took his hand with a graceful movement, and he reached out to clasp hers between his and met her gaze.
“How was your trip?” she asked. He replied that the flight was uneventful, except for a delay in Milan, and noted that her voice had a throaty quality, which spoke of years of cigarettes, or secondhand smoke. Her wide mouth, when she talked, had a broadness that displayed an irregular alignment of teeth, the two front ones noticeably overlapped. This quirk of ivory added a certain charm to the unique features of her face: clay pools for eyes, an aquiline nose, and a thick head of long hair that graced her shoulders. Its softness, suffused with the browns of autumn, outlined her beauty. A beauty, he imagined, grown more intense with the years. The only betrayal of time showed in the darkness under her eyes, where the shadows of lost sleep lay imprinted under her lashes, her tattoos of mourning forever visible.
“Excuse the awkwardness, Señora O’Connor. If I stare it is because I see your son, Peter, in your countenance,” Antonio said. Diane seemed taken off guard by his remark. She offered the priest a thank you and then moved ahead of him, motioning with one hand to follow.
The house—its walls, floors, and furniture frozen in the late twentieth century—had a series of small rooms attached to one another off an L-shaped hallway: the living room, the dining room, and then the kitchen. On the stark white walls of the passageway were photographs, each picture mounted on a seamless backing hung off the cove molding on long extensions of wire. Antonio slowed his step to peer at the glossy images. Most were firefighters—some wearing caps and suspenders mugging for the camera’s lens, while others wore dress-blue uniforms, their chests expanded with pride and their mouths drawn firm. Two faces stood out among the many: one a firefighter, the other a priest.
He pressed in closer to examine their similarities, knowing that they were brothers, remembering what Peter O’Connor had told him of his family. The two men could have been twins, so similar were their features, and except for their hair color—one yellow gold and the other fire red—both grinned the same grin out to the world.
Absorbed, Antonio neglected to notice that Diane had disappeared into the kitchen. He thought to ask her about the two men in the photographs, and when he turned in anticipation of seeing her next to him, he took a step toward where she might be standing. His right foot struck a pair of boots propped upright against the wall. He stumbled and put a hand out to that empty place where he thought she might be, but his face did not meet hers, and instead came within an inch of a firefighter’s helmet, the medallion of its FDNY ladder company polished and gleaming.
On the edge of that moment, trying to regain his balance, each breath he took tightened in his throat. Antonio began to gag. His mind raced. What could be happening? One minute he was looking at photographs and the next his throat was constricting. An acrid odor rose to his nostrils. He shook his head—the same faint smell he’d noticed from before, at the door, but stronger, sharp enough now to sear his soft membranes. My God, he thought and recoiled. Sweat sprang from his face and neck. A heart attack? He clutched his chest. No, not that. His heart was fine except for the galloping beat under his ribcage. Heat emanated from the helmet as if it had just come through an inferno. “My God,” he said aloud. Perhaps a fire burned inside the wall, hot enough to choke him.
Antonio backed away and cupped his hands over his face, bending over at the waist and taking in gulps of air, as his host reappeared in the kitchen’s doorway. “Señora . . .” Antonio’s voice was a rasping bark. “I beg your forgiveness; I have knocked over your husband’s boots.” His eyes stung from the stench and began to water. “I am sorry, Señora, but the helmet . . .”
Diane reassured him there was no fire, nothing to worry about, and walked back into the kitchen. Antonio followed and found her at the stove warming coffee. There was a plate of pastry on the table, canoli and napoleons piled in a stack, enough for several guests. He went to the table and pulled out a chair for himself and one for her.
“The helmet, Señora—it was burning,” Antonio said, his throat still raw.
“You have so many questions in your head about this house, and about the brothers in the pictures on the wall.” She raised her eyes and looked in that direction as if from there she could see the photographs. Then she handed him a glass of water while she spoke. There it was again, he thought, that ragged tone, and the accent slightly nasal. “Unfortunately we have little time for small talk,” she said. “I had hoped to explain slowly the unexplained that fills this house, but you’ve made some of your own discoveries. The heat from a helmet long retired provides you with a smattering of insight into the history of this family. Disturbing as this may be to you, for me, it’s commonplace, familiar.”
Antonio had just taken a sip of water, the glass suspended in midair, and he paused to look at her. A fiery helmet commonplace? he thought to himself. Peter, once joking, had mentioned his mother’s house being haunted, but he never said anything about equipment burning. What is going on here?
He opened his mouth to speak, but he could not find the correct phrase. He stuttered, all the time looking at the woman, at Peter’s mother. One large window framed the backdrop behind her, and with the morning sun pouring in, the light forced him to squint. A note hung on the cabinet door just to her left. He could not read it from where he sat, and probably not even up close because the ink and the paper appeared faded. The room, at that moment, seemed cast in a dense halo that formed an aura around her.
Struck by that vision, Antonio dropped his glass. It slipped from his thumb and forefinger, knocking his cup of coffee onto the pristine white tablecloth and sending shards of dainty porcelain and glass onto the floor. The shattering noise jolted him and he rose quickly, but Diane did not move. She stood encased in the light, emblazoned like an apparition. He knelt to gather the pieces, but instead found himself on both knees, praying.
“The knowing is no mystery,” she said. “There are spirits here, in this house. Peter grew up with them, but he never acknowledged their presence. If you ask him, he will deny their existence, but you’re different; you will not flee from them. The scorching helmet in the hallway is cold to the touch of others.” One of her eyebrows arched high into her forehead, as if asking him if he understood.
“No, Señora,” he said, stuttering again. “You are mistaken. I am God’s humble servant here on earth. A priest of St. Francis committed to serving the poor,” Antonio answered, still on his knees, feeling the heat of which she spoke.
“You’ll become the Pope’s counsel, an enviable position—the secretary to the bishop of Rome.” Her remark was encased in annoyance. “Petawh,” she began again, emphasizing the loss of the letter r with her impatience, “is no common priest, chosen, as he was before his birth to sit on this earth as the Vicar of Christ. Your friendship with him isn’t coincidental.” She drummed her fingers. “When you pray, offer thanks to those who watch over you. They’ve interceded on your behalf.”
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