CHAPTER ONE

Niamh Egan had thrown one of her finer vases at her father's head when he told her the news. She'd just barely missed, thank goodness, but once that deed was done, she found herself scrambling to find one straightforward thought. Her father had done some objectionable things to cheer her up before, but this was at another level. That he would have her walk the tightrope of sanity for the sake of a more pleasant disposition - it made her sick. Assumpta couldn't - no, shouldn't - be alive. She'd seen the colour fade from her best friend's face, had watched her as she'd lain so still on that cold cellar floor. These horrible images were too deeply seared into her mind to be anything but firm, bitter, and excruciatingly final truth.

But Brian Quigley maintained his resolve - and more importantly, his temper. That he stood so determinedly still while she paced about the living room, rambling off at him, had slowly begun to sink in, and it caused her to finally pause. She looked at him, challenging him one last time to please just give up the joke, for her sake. His face remained weighted with all seriousness.

"Take me to her."

With Kieran in Ambrose's care (who had received a breathless and somewhat incoherent explanation of the situation - she figured he'd put two and two together when she returned with a peculiarly familiar face in the back seat), Niamh and her father set out for Cilldargan. It was a quiet trip, with Brian at the wheel, heavy-footed and still not entirely convinced that this was happening. Niamh fidgeted, her knee bouncing with all the nervous, excited energy swirling through her body. She stared out her window at the scenery, but her wide and weary eyes never focused on one point or another. About a mile or so outside the city, Niamh insisted they pull over. She stepped outside, clapped her hands over her mouth, and let out a few deep sobs. Taking a moment to regain her composure, she headed back to the car and sat herself down with new determination. Brian gave his daughter's hand a squeeze, and after nodding quietly to each other, they headed into the city and towards the hospital.

Once they were inside, Niamh kept a steady pace of always being five steps ahead of her father. This became a bit more of a task than should have been, as the hallways had been transformed into a mess of busy people headed in a million different directions. When they reached the reception desk, Brian gave his daughter a gentle nudge.

"They certainly don't waste time, do they?"

As she took a moment to observe her surroundings, she realized that the waiting room was packed to the brim with people holding cameras, microphones, notepads, and so on. One of them sat hunched over a yellow pad of paper, sipping coffee out of a styrofoam cup and scribbling down what Niamh could only assume were potential headlines - "The Lady Called Lazarus" had a nice ring to it, but there was one he'd thankfully scratched out that read "Is There More to Post-Mortem?"

She sneered, and puffed herself up as she shoved past the line of journalists who were calling out to the frazzled receptionist for directions to the miracle girl's room. Elbowing the last of them aside, she nearly kissed the glass as she spoke - loudly, so that the whole room could hear.

"Hello, my name is Niamh Egan, and I'd really like to see my best friend."

The receptionist was briefly taken aback, but quietly proceeded to dig through the file cabinet beneath her desk. She pulled out a folder, and slowly flipped through it, her eyes scanning back and forth. Niamh drummed her fingers as she waited, and finally the receptionist nodded.

"Niamh Egan, nee Niamh Quigley, correct?"

"I am she."

"Right this way, Ms. Egan," she smiled as she gestured towards the slightly less chaotic hallway that lay behind the desk. Once more, Brian Quigley trailed behind the two younger ladies as they trotted over the white, speckled tiles towards the cardiac unit. The receptionist leaned in towards Niamh at one point, smiling mischievously as she whispered, "If you don't mind, Ms. Egan, but I saw it in her file - how exactly did she manage to fracture her leg while using your father's hot tub, eh?"

Niamh looked at the receptionist for a moment before a devilish grin had broken her determined, stern expression.

"His name was Jamie McLoughlin."

Brian had picked up his pace as the two ladies laughed loudly together.

"What was that about my hot tub?"

ooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

It was oddly quiet when they reached the hallway where Assumpta's room lay. Niamh came to a sudden stop after rounding the corner, but she felt her father's hand on her shoulder.

"I'll be right outside, Niamh. I doubt she'll be wanting to see old man Quigley first thing, anyway. But go on," he encouraged. "Go say hello."

She turned around to face her father and threw her arms around him.

"Thanks, dad."

With one last nod to each other, Niamh took a deep, focused breath and slowly, tentatively made her way towards Room 142.

The sunlight poured into the room - even through the slatted, vertical blinds that danced as air from an oscillating fan on the other side of the room pushed them to and fro - and it cast everything with a warm, yellow glow. Niamh thought briefly that perhaps everyone was just confused, and that the real miracle was that they'd stumbled upon Heaven. But then she looked to the centre of the room, to where an unmistakable head of dark brown waves rested upon a large white pillow. The head was turned away from the door, staring absentmindedly towards the windows. She was still so pale - Niamh wondered if perhaps they'd spoken too soon. Perhaps now she was gone.

But then the white bed sheets that rested on her friend's body rose and sunk, in a deep sigh.

Assumpta was breathing.

Assumpta was alive.

"You scared me half to death, you know," she scolded, through happy tears.

Assumpta turned slowly to face her, with a warm smile, breathing her friend's name. Niamh hurried to sit herself down in the chair next to the bed, and took Assumpta's hand in hers, holding it against her cheek. She could feel wamth; could feel a pulse.

"We thought you were dead."

"I know. They won't stop telling me."

"We had a wake for you and everything."

"Oh, good. Did everyone have something nice to say about me?"

"Assumpta..." Niamh warned. "It's been a week. One whole week without you. Its not been easy."

Her friend nodded, breaking their locked gaze to stare at the floor, a serious expression weighing on her face.

"I know, Niamh. I'm sorry. Believe me, it's not the path I would have chosen," she offered in a low, gentle voice. "How's Kieran?"

Niamh rested their clasped hands at Assumpta's side, and began gently stroking the smooth top of her friend's hand as she answered.

"Oh, he's just fine. He's at home with Ambrose right now," she replied. "You missed his baptism, you know."

"Oh. How was it?"

Niamh gave a short sardonic laugh, shaking her head.

"It was great. Kieran behaved himself like the gentleman he is, and there was a lovely party afterwards."

"Did you get Peter to do it?"

Niamh's turn to observe the flooring.

"We did," she replied, feeling Assumpta's curious eyes burning a hole into her skull. "He was great, too."

There was a long moment of silence, wherein Niamh had begun to imagine shapes in the speckles on the tile directly below her left foot, and Assumpta's expression had deepened into mild panic.

"Niamh," she pleaded gently. "How is he?"

"I... don't know."

"What do you mean you don't know?"

"I mean I don't know, Assumpta!" Niamh exclaimed, staring wide-eyed at her friend. "He just disappeared! Right after the ceremony. Didn't even have the decency to say good-bye."

"Wha- why would he do that?"

Niamh leaned in closer, resting her elbows on the bed. She lifted Assumpta's hand and held it in both of hers as she considered her response.

"Because it was too hard, Assumpta. Having you gone. That's why," she explained. "Like I said - it hasn't been easy. For any of us."

Suddenly the reality of the situation weighed on Assumpta like a bag of bricks. Dying and coming back to life suddenly felt like the bargain end of the deal. She'd been pretty well asleep while those who knew her trudged through their daily lives with burning holes in their hearts. But of course, she wouldn't have dared assume she meant anything more than a couple respectful tears to anyone other than Peter - and even he'd surprised her with his complete abandonment of the community. No part of this felt right. She almost wished she'd remained as she was - dead, she hesitated to think - for the sake of keeping the natural order. To let her friends walk through their grieving process uninterrupted - so they could get on with their lives, and let the dull ache of losing her fade into oblivion.

But here she was.