New York City, February, 2005.
“Prepare for the C-section!” the obstetrician shouted, prompting Nathaniel Foster to lift his eyes toward the screen. Normally he was the man with the scalpel, and all the beeps and numbers would have initiated a series of calm, rational decisions from him. But at that moment, he was not the head surgeon of one of the greatest hospitals in New York city; he was in a state of panic, horrified by the possibility of losing his wife.
“What the hell is happening, Jack?! She was fine just an hour ago!” Nate barked.
“This is no time to make a scene, Nate! Irina’s pressure is through the roof, and I’m trying to save your baby. Go back to her and try to calm her down until we start.”
Irina stared at Nate, her eyes cloudy. “Nate...” Her voice came out soft and weak. “It’s happening, isn’t it? What you were worried about.”
Nate did not hear the question. “I’m here,” he said, holding her hand. “I’m going to take care of you.”
Irina smiled faintly. “Don’t worry about me, darling. Take care of our—” The anesthesiologist had inserted a syringe into the IV and the rest of the sentence oozed out of her in a soft moan.
The screen on the EKG still indicated high arterial pressure and an irregular heartbeat, but the baby was delivered nevertheless. Once it was removed safely from its mother, a symphony of alarms exploded in the room.
“No!” Nate screamed. “Irina!”
One of the doctor’s colleagues pushed him aside. “Get out of here, Nate. Let us help her!”
Dazed, he retreated while a band of men dressed in blue surrounded his wife, like a pack of vultures. She had gone into cardiac arrest.
“Clear!” Jack screamed above the chatter. Irina’s body flung into the air in a jolt.
“We’re losing her!” another man yelled, watching the flat line on the monitor.
“Clear!” and another dose of electricity was administered to her inert body.
Nate could barely breathe. This isn’t happening... I waited my whole life to find this woman. She is perfect, she loves me. We’re parents now. She’s going to be all right.
After a matter of minutes that felt as heavy as hours, Jack turned to Nate and shook his head. But Nate didn’t see him. All he could hear was the sound produced by the cardiac monitor.
Nate ran to his wife. “She can’t be dead! She can’t.”
“Nate,” started the anesthesiologist, touching his arm. “We—”
“Get out of here, all of you!” Nate yanked the defibrillator from Jack’s hands and placed it over Irina’s chest. After another jolt, her body returned to its rigid state, the shrill hum of the flat line still flooding the room.
He increased the charge on the defibrillator and tried again.
“Come on, baby... please...” When she did not react, he massaged her heart manually and performed mouth to mouth. The surgeon inside of him laughed at his feeble attempt to save her life.
The team of doctors and nurses who had delivered the baby had known Nathaniel Foster for years. They knew how dedicated a doctor he was—he was one of the best open heart surgeons on the East Coast—the volunteer work he was involved with, and how indefatigable he was when the pressure thickened. Had it been any other man trying to massage a dead woman to life, someone would have already sedated him and dragged him away. But they couldn’t do that to a colleague like Nate. With downcast eyes and respectful silence, Nate’s colleagues watched the pitiable scene until the man finally gave up, and surrendered to his tears.
One by one the delivery team drifted away, but Jack stayed behind. He approached Nate slowly, and placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Nate. But think of your son. It’s what she would have wanted.”
When Jack left the room, Nate sat on the operating table and laid Irina’s head on his lap. “They don’t know anything about what you want, do they, honey?”
He spent the next half-hour sitting there, eyes glued to the wall, stroking his wife’s hair.
When Jack came back and found Nate in the same position, he said softly, “She can’t stay here anymore. We need to—”
The look Jack received silenced him. By the way Nate was rolling the scalpel between his thumb and forefinger, Jack could tell that Nate’s mind had wandered into dark territory.
Jack did not come any closer, but he wouldn’t leave Nate alone without knowing what his intentions were. “Your parents are outside,” Jack said, trying to distract him. “Would you like to see them?”
Nate suddenly stopped rolling the scalpel in his hand, and reached for Irina’s pale wrist. He then cut her ID bracelet.
Jack let the air escape from his lungs. “So?”
Nate took a while to answer, as if he were trying to reactivate the rational components of his brain, now buried deep within a haze of anguish. “No. I’m going to call my lawyer. Right now, he’s the only one I want to talk to.”
“Don’t worry, Jack. Not to sue you. You were the specialist, but I was the husband. I should never have let her continue with this pregnancy.”
“Come on, Nate! You think at a time like this I’m worried about a freaking lawsuit? Irina was my friend and I’m also devastated by what happened. But it was no one’s fault. You know as well as I do that she was conscious of the risks, and there was nothing that you or I could have done to dissuade her. She wanted this baby more than anything!”
“Yeah, but I didn’t,” Nate said, tracing his fingers over Irina’s pale face. “I wanted her.”
Jack exhaled heavily. “So why do you need a lawyer?”
“I want to bury her on my property in New Rochelle. He’s going to take care of the bureaucracy.”
An hour later, Nate was in the morgue, beside his closest friend, Emily O’Neill. In front of them, Irina’s body rested, now covered only by a thin sheet.
Emily was five-foot-six, and even at 31 still looked like a college student. Her thin face, framed by short blonde hair, was marked by bright green eyes and almost non-existent lips. She was one of the hospital’s best pathologists.
“I’m going to need your help,” Nate said, not facing her. He didn’t realize the weight of his words until they had pursed his lips.
Emily nodded. “You’re making the right choice. It can’t be easy with someone you love.”
Nate knew how difficult this would be, but he hadn’t wanted to delegate the task to anyone. The same body he had taken care of in life should be cared for by him in death. “No, thank you. I just need you to assist me.”
Nathaniel Foster had never learned to accept death. His choice of profession had been made very early in life after losing his darling little sister. He refused to imagine Linda’s body being devoured by worms, turning to dust. His obsession with defeating death had not been limited to studying medicine and fighting illness. He had also become one of the foremost specialists in human mummification in North America, and over the years had lectured on the subject at universities and conferences across the country.
Despite its technical name, modern-day mummification was far more advanced than the rituals performed by the ancient Egyptians thousands of years before. The current procedure replaced all body fluids with wax, preserving the individual’s muscles, skin and features for generations. The practice was expensive and for many, psychologically disturbing. For Nate, it was simply a way to trick death.
The complete process that would immortalize Irina would take three days. Yet, the sooner it was initiated, the more alive she would look. Nate obtained permission to begin the basic embalming process in the hospital. He would then take Irina to his private clinic to proceed with the most sophisticated steps.
Nate prepared the chemicals and the embalming machine, then gently caressed Irina’s arm. “Don’t worry. This won’t hurt at all.” He filled a syringe with an anesthetic solution, and applied it to her vein. From there, Nate continued as if he were performing a routine surgical operation from which Irina would soon awake.
In the room next door, Emily was finishing an autopsy. She lifted her eyes when Nate entered. She nodded knowingly, and he left. She cleaned her station, washed her hands, and then went to meet him.
Emily’s infatuation with Nate began after she attended one of his lectures in mummification techniques seven years earlier. And it did not matter how many boyfriends she’d had since: Nate was the man she had always wanted.
Nate was tall, blond, and possessed one of those graceful, transparent faces that was impossible to ignore. He had a perfectly sculptured profile with a generous smile and intelligent brown eyes. At 32, Nate still boasted the athletic body he’d cultivated since the Harvard rowing team. He was a brilliant professional and had a heart the size of the world. Emily had silently loved and admired Nate all those years, and seeing him so devastated had caused her immense heartache.
Gossip about cheating was common in the hospital—few doctors and nurses escaped from at least a brief extramarital affair. Emily had done some digging and confirmed that Nate had always been loyal to Irina, and loved her in such a utopian way that it had been impossible not to envy her as a rival. The strange thing was that even now, after Irina’s death, Emily’s sense of jealousy lingered.
Nate was back at Irina’s side, studying her as if she were his pet project. He slipped three gloved fingers into her mouth, and capped each of her teeth in order to keep them white.
Emily wondered why he was putting so much effort into preserving a body that soon would be six feet under. But if that made Nate feel that he was honoring his wife’s memory, so be it. The sooner it was done the better.
Emily pulled back the sheet to examine the body and noticed that Nate had performed a true plastic surgery, removing all vestiges of Irina’s pregnancy. Her abdomen lay as flat as a board, her body sculpted to its original glory.
The only way Emily could have gotten to Nate was if Irina had vanished, but now that the woman was dead, Emily was forced to forsake those thoughts. Being a pathologist can numb your empathy at times, and Emily was fully aware that she had to keep her darker thoughts in check. Besides, Irina had been an incredible woman who’d wholly reciprocated Nate’s love and devotion. She’d deserved him in every way.
And, despite his mask of warm smiles, Nate was clearly in a state of misery. He was acting out a classic case of denial, going about his work as though nothing had happened. Eventually the body would be buried, however, and Nate would be forever sealed from seeing the love of his life again. Emily shuddered to think what Nate might do to himself then.
When Nate finished his operation, he told Emily, “I need you to do the eyes for me now.”
Hours later, the body was released and Emily accompanied Nate to his private clinic.
The clinic in which they worked occupied one of the wings of Nate’s grandparent’s mansion in New Rochelle. He had inherited the property shortly before marrying Irina and turned part of it into a clinic with an office, a surgical center, and a few rooms for patient recovery. Nate had worked there for a while, but in the past year, he had become so busy at the hospital that the clinic had to be temporarily deactivated.
Nate and Emily worked until 10 P.M. when they were able to finally start injecting the liquid wax into Irina’s arteries and veins. Emily microwaved a frozen pizza for their dinner, and the two ate in silence, the metallic scent of irradiated pepperoni filling the void between them.
When they were finished, Emily said, “I’m going home now, but I spoke to Cindy and she agreed to switch shifts with me. I’ll come back tomorrow morning and stay with you until the funeral, okay?”
Nate embraced Emily. “No wonder you are my best friend. Thank you.”
Emily closed her eyes and squeezed him tightly before pulling away. “Nate, I didn’t want to ask before, but are your parents taking care of the baby over the next few days?”
She sighed in relief. “Good. Now go upstairs and try to sleep. Tomorrow we’ll keep taking care of her.”
Nate waited on the front porch until Emily was gone and then returned to the surgical center. The technique he was using was the most revolutionary, but it needed full attention at each stage. There was no time to rest.
Nate adjusted the equipment and inspected the drains. After hours of suction and two gallons of wax, ninety percent of Irina’s corporeal fluids had been expelled. It was still too early to wash her hair, Nate decided, so he filled a metallic basin with saline solution and started to clean her body.
“We have a little more to go, honey. Keep sleeping.”
At 9 A.M. Nate was awoken by the doorbell. Only two hours earlier, fatigue had taken over and he had fallen asleep in a chair.
When Emily saw him open the door, dressed in the same filthy lab coat as the day before, she knew he had not followed her advice. But she refrained from scolding him. “Good morning,” was all she said and followed him inside.
The drains had been removed and Irina’s body and hair were now clean. The incisions made the previous day had been filled with a thick layer of wax, whose opaque white resembled her skin. Her pale, angelic face was framed with red curls that cascaded down her shoulders, and with her arm still plugged into the IV, for a moment Emily saw Irina Foster as just another one of Nate’s recovering patients. And in a bizarre way, she looked radiantly beautiful.
“Wow,” Emily let slip. “You did an incredible job.”
“We still have two days ahead of us. She’ll look even better.”
Over the next 48 hours Emily camped in Nate’s home. Eventually, what had started out as a macabre experience soon turned into perfecting a work of art.
“Do you want her hands crossed over her chest?” Emily asked.
“No. They’ll stay right next to her body. I don’t want anything that makes her resemble a cadaver.”
Irina was dressed in a long, silver gown that Nate had bought her right before her pregnancy and never had a chance to wear. Nate still remembered his dumbstruck face reflecting in the store mirror when she came out of the dressing room and asked, “Well, what do you think?”
He laughed. “Even without makeup and your hair tied in a ponytail you almost made my heart stop. Imagine what I’m going to think when I see you really dressed up?”
Irina smiled. “That’s the reaction I was hoping for.”
Emily was working with the permanent makeup products when Nate returned. First, he slipped Irina’s wedding ring back onto her finger, then came to Emily’s side and opened a Cartier box.
“Would you please tie her hair back a little in the front to show these?”
Emily looked at the stunning pair of floral earrings—each petal was a two-carat diamond encircling tiny sapphires. “Do you intend to bury her with these?”
Nate stroked Irina’s face. “She’s only going to stay in the grave for an hour. Why do you think I got legal permission to bury her here?”
“Are you out of your mind? Do you intend to dig her back up when people leave?!”
“I thought you had understood that.”
Emily shook her head, unable to speak.
“I’ll be admitted to a psychiatric ward if anyone finds out. Are you going to tell on me?”
“Of course not!” Emily breathed unevenly. “I just don’t think that hiding her in your home will be healthy for you!”
“And do you think it’s healthy to lose the person I love most to worms?”
Emily fell silent again while Nate headed toward the air conditioning unit. He adjusted the temperature by a few degrees lower.
“I’m not ready to let her go, Em, and I will regret it if I don’t do this. Later, I can always change my mind and do things the conventional way, but right now, I need this.”
The next morning at ten o’clock a small crowd of Nate’s friends and family gathered in the garden for the funeral.
Irina had been born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and despised her family so much that she had only spoken once of them to Nate. Her mother had abandoned them for another man, her father was a drunk, and her sister had always resented Irina’s successes, trying hard to sabotage her at every turn. Irina knew she would never be happy around her family and one day, things became so unbearable, she simply ran away.
A few months later, Irina met Nate while he was studying in Moscow and felt as if she had been reborn. Not only was he the ideal boyfriend, but he became the family she had never had. Irina had embraced their relationship with body and soul. When it was time for Nate to return to the United States, the two married in the American embassy, and she returned with him to New York.
During the four years they spent together, Nate and Irina could not have been happier. Unfortunately, they only discovered that she had a small aneurism after she fell pregnant.
“You can’t make this decision alone,” Nate said, angry. “Having this baby is a huge risk to your health. Possibly even your life.”
Irina smiled. “I know you’re quite conservative, Dr. Foster, but I’ve been talking to other doctors and they said that if I take care of myself, the possibility of something going wrong is extremely low.”
“When it comes to you, extremely low is still too high for me.”
“Honey, I’ve always wanted to be a mother and I’m not having an abortion.” Irina’s voice was soft, but firm. The discussion was ended. She took Nate’s hand and placed it on her belly. “It’s our child. Our love child. Everything will be fine if you help me.”
He certainly had helped. He had taken care of every medication, every test, every diet pill, and talked constantly with specialists. Irina was healthy for the entire gestation period.
At the funeral Nate wore no expression upon his face. Dressed in an impeccable black suit, he greeted everyone shortly and did not shed a tear, not even for the beautiful words of the minister conducting the ceremony. When the coffin was closed and lowered into the grave, he threw a red rose on top and whispered, “See you soon.”
Nate had decided not to hold a reception at the house so one of his cousins offered his place nearby. As guests headed toward their cars, Nate’s parents came forward to embrace him.
“Come on, my boy,” Mr. Foster said. “We’re going to drive you, and tonight, you should come sleep at Aunt Carol’s with us.”
“Thanks, Dad, but I need some time to myself. Please, greet people for me. I’ll meet you in an hour.”
“Are you sure?” his mother asked.
“Yes, and I’d like to ask you for one more thing.”
“Could you take care of the baby a little longer?”
The Fosters exchanged concerned glances and Nate’s father said, “Son, he’s not responsible for what happened.”
“It’s not that. I just need a few days to get my head straight.”
“You know you can count on us,” said Mrs. Foster, kissing Nate’s cheek. “But don’t isolate yourself, honey. It’s not healthy, and the boy has already lost his mother. He needs you.”
“I’ll be there when the time is right. And by the way, his name will be Joshua. That’s what Irina wanted.”
Emily had already escaped into the house, and when the last car left the property, she locked the estate’s electronic gate and met Nate at the burial site. He had already removed his tie and jacket and as seated squarely in the excavator. Upon receiving Emily’s signal that they were alone, he got started.
Silently, Emily witnessed her platonic love exhume a grave and pull up a coffin. Being a pathologist, she had no problem seeing corpses. However, Irina Foster didn’t look like one. Even after participating in the project that had immortalized her, Emily felt a chill run through her body when the coffin was opened, and saw the stunning redhead sleeping inside. It was like being on the set of a vampire movie.
Nate smiled, and lifted Irina in his arms. The body could not bend like a living person—the spine no longer possessed that flexibility—so carrying her up to the house would probably destroy all of his work. Nate carefully walked over to his Ford F-150 parked nearby and placed her in the truck bed of the vehicle.
Nate returned to the excavator and piloted the coffin back into the vacant grave site. Emily stared on, not sure if she should be horrified or proud of her work. She stole a glance at the beautiful woman, now in the bed of Nate’s truck, then back at Nate. She would ride this out to the end, then make a decision about it all.
The Foster mansion rested on a large estate, so privacy was not much of an issue. Even so, Emily covered Irina’s body with a sheet and waited until Nate had sealed the grave. When he was finished, she sat in the passenger seat of the truck without saying a word.
Nate drove the few yards up to the house with such meticulous care it felt as if they would never arrive. Halfway through the drive, Emily glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. While her own hands were shaking slightly, Nate’s face reflected no emotion whatsoever. It was as if his nerves had been neutralized, just like those he had injected with wax. Only his eyes revealed the euphoria of one carrying out an insane plan.
Nate parked near the back door, and carried the body inside. Emily followed him upstairs, and when they reached a certain point in the hallway, Nate stopped and asked her to open one of the doors.
When Emily saw the room Nate had prepared to serve as Irina’s mausoleum, any hope she harbored of ever winning his heart crumbled. The room had once been a guest suite, but at some point over the past few days, Nate had removed most of the furniture. All that was left was a single bed, placed alongside the window, and a wardrobe, where he likely intended to store his wife’s belongings.
In the center of the room, an operation table had been covered in sheets, and was currently serving as a pedestal for an acrylic box the size of a coffin. Emily knew that this box was used for wax figures, to prevent light from dampening the color of the wax. She wondered if Nate had used his contacts in the Metropolitan Museum to obtain one so fast.
Before she could ask anything, Nate lifted Irina’s body and said, “Could you help me with the legs?”
Emily automatically followed the command, and then watched as he settled his wife’s head on the pillow gently. She felt a chill crawl down her spine and it was not because of the temperature that hovered around forty-five degrees. Nate was going insane, and she didn’t know how to help him.