FirstWriter Thirteenth International Short Story Competition 2017 - Special Commendation
When I go to Block 13, please ask the chaplain to help me along. We haven’t spent a lot of time together, the chaplain and I, but I think it’s probably part of his job – to waft souls in the right direction.
We called it Ward 13 at work. A euphemism. Did they know that, I wonder, when they named it ‘Block 13’ here? I picture a man in a boiler suit splashing black paint liberally on the bricks. I wonder if he thought about what he was doing. Probably not, he likely whistled some Johnny Cash and moved on. I expect it was the same for the handymen at Dachau.
There’s not much to do here but think and wonder. At least, that’s how I pass the time. You have to do something; if you don’t, you’ll end up going cuckoo like the guy three cells down. He drools a lot, like his brains are seeping out his mouth. I see the frothy puddles on his floor as I pass on the way to the yard. The guy next door is learning Russian. Sometimes I hear him practising out loud. At first I thought he was speaking in tongues. Maybe he thinks Russian is the lingua franca in hell.
Today my thoughts are darker than I’d like, and full of memories. I saw my lawyer yesterday. He smiles a lot less these days. We can hear the grains of the hourglass settling, the bottom a lot fuller than the top now.
Forty-a-day Kevin wheezes down the corridor, reminding me of the close call I had two years ago. Pneumonia. I’d choked for breath, rapped on death’s door. I got taken to Ward 9, which is just like the ward I used to work on. They force-fed me oxygen and brandished needles and vials at me. I remember that one nurse, with the torpedo tits, as she came to change my IV bag. She looked at me, really looked at me, through eyelashes so thick with mascara they looked like iron bars. I wondered if she was like me, if she was going to help me along.
The needles reminded me of my work. Those pointlessly sterile needles. I used needles, more than they counted actually. I loved that pop when the vessel wall surrendered and the point entered the vein. I liked watching the solution going in. I imagined it swirl in the blood, waltz with the haemoglobin and platelets, forming a conga line towards the heart.
Dementia was my specialty. Have you ever seen someone consumed by it? They piss themselves and shit themselves and they’re so scared all the time, like the world is one big house of horrors. They hold tea parties with Macbeth’s hags and starve because they fear poison in their porridge. They use their walking sticks as lances and cackle at their yellowed, uncut toenails.
As I lay there in that bed on Ward 9, I’d wondered what went through their minds as they drifted off. Was it something profound - children’s laughter, or the meaning of life? Or was it memories – a ripped lazy boy, a chargrilled forearm, a rolled up one-dollar bill? Perhaps they re-lived petty arguments – who left the bedroom window open, or whose turn it was to do the washing up.
I wonder about these things a lot now. About Geoff Adler and his liver-spotted, crooked hands. About May Elderson’s unseeing gaze; dead long before she was gone. About the ones I can’t even remember. Mercy - it droppeth like a gentle rain from heaven. I doubt you’ve read Shakespeare. You’re much more about the bible: an eye for an eye and all that.
They’re bringing my evening swill; a stench of old socks. I wonder about final smells. What death smells like, to those passing on? Does it have a special fragrance, maybe Johnny Walker or orange juice? It probably just smells of wherever you are at the time, like the typical smells of the ward: antiseptic, air freshener and boiled cabbage.
You used to be able to pick it here: your last supper. If only there wasn’t a slim budget, I think I’d want something expensive, tiny, with a French name I can’t pronounce. I think of all the people who ate their last meal in hospital. Probably everyone should know what snails taste like before they die.
I chew on a chunk of what I hope is beef and I wonder how long it is until you go. Until you’re really gone. I wonder whether having someone sitting in that room with its dim lights and tissues can touch you. Will I see mom clutching my lifeless hand, laid on top of the blanket just for that farewell connection? Maybe your soul hangs around a little while, after.
I wonder about pain. I wonder if it will hurt. If they’d been in pain, my chosen ones. I’d never really stopped to look. I closed the curtains and never looked back.
Curtains. We’d pull them round the still-breathing patients on the ward, when the special trolley came. Unseen behind the polyester, like magicians we’d hide the body under blue plastic like a heavy duty rain cover, as if it was going to journey through some apocalyptic deluge. Once it was safely on its way to the mortuary, Ward 13, we threw open the curtains. Voilà, a soul had disappeared. No need to think about what happens behind the scenes.
Curtains. We whisked them shut at cardiac arrests. I used to like the distinctive sound of the plastic eyes dashing along the rail – a sound that set your teeth on edge. The things those eggshell blue curtains hid. A person reduced to a slab of meat, gown flung aside. Naked while we tenderised their chest, peppered them with sticky labels and infused tubes all over the place.
Curtains. Useful things, like blinds. They open and close, marking the first act and the denouement. Sometimes they draw the blinds mid-performance here – an interval of sorts. Careful misdirection. The blinds come in handy when there are convulsions, gasps, gagging. Technical hitches. Swollen tissue leaking poison, layers of skin burned away by acid. It’s a polite fiction - controlled, tidy, clinical. Everyone goes along with the illusion but they know it’s a sleight of hand. When the show is over, everyone goes home, suitably entertained.
The guards interrupt my thoughts. It is exercise time. I must exercise, it’s important to keep healthy. I recite my number as I plod around the yard: 892-10765-21C. It’s what it’ll say on my tombstone. A nameless concrete cross with a number: 892-10765-21C. They used to carve our names, but sometimes they got the spelling wrong and it led to some legal issues. I wonder who noticed the mistake. No one visits. The graveyard reeks of absent flowers.
There’s fuck-all to see on the horizon, nothing but barren wasteland and the cemetery. The nothingness does funny things to your eyes. People are at work amongst the rows and rows of crosses. Inmates. They’re the gardeners, the stone masons, the pall bearers. They’re even the grave-diggers. Some of them are probably literally digging their own graves. Some of them are shovelling mine. I watch as a coffin is dragged over the scrub, hitched on the back of a tractor. Bleak thoughts stalk me like a crow waiting for the carcass.
Randy sees where I’m looking as he removes my cuffs. Grins. Tells me that I’m going to be buried face down so I can never see another sunrise. That way, I won’t be able to push on the lid of my coffin if I come back to life. And I’ll be able to witness the worms coming to get me, he says, eating into my eyeballs, slithering into my ears to get to my brains. There’s things you wish you could unhear. His words burrow into me as I trudge round and round.
I do maths to distract myself. If I’m average it will take ten minutes. It takes two minutes to do a loop of the yard. Every five loops I count it. One loop, two loops, three loops, four loops, five loops. Death. Then I break it down. One loop, two loops – coma. Three loops, four loops – paralysis. Five loops – suffocation, death.
I speed up, imagine I’m in a race. One loop, two loops – neck-to-neck with sodium thiopental. Three loops, four loops – overtaking pancuronium. Five loops, breathing heavily now – sprinting past the potassium chloride. I laugh at the irony of my pounding heart.
Randy elbows me in the kidneys as we jangle back to my cell. He’s a mean son-of-a-bitch. A thug, with seedy ginger whiskers, covered in tattoos of snakes and topless mermaids. He looks more criminal than me. People with facial hair are the most capable of cruelty, judging by the way Randy and his goatee gang kick me around. Randy even pissed on me once.
Still, I think I prefer him to the other guard who’s with him today. Leo. He’s one of the automatons, born on a production-line of soulless mannequins. They look right through you, the Leos, as if you’re already a wraith.
I look into Randy’s eyes as he locks my cell. I make eye contact with everyone I meet now, even when they’re beating the shit out of me or spitting in my face. I stare deep into each of them and wonder what they’re capable of. What goes on in the mind of a co-conspirator. Randy calls me a faggot and lands a kick on my kneecap through the bars.
I kill more time with counting. Lately, I’ve started living in increments. It takes me ten minutes to read a chapter of To Kill a Mocking Bird. Death. Ten minutes to take a shower, get dried and clothed. Death. Five minutes of sit ups. Five minutes of press ups. Death.
I got moved to solitary yesterday. There’s no point in unpacking – it’s not a home, it’s a 28-day motel room. It doesn’t have even a slit of a window and they never turn the strip lights off; even at night they glare down at me. I can take 97 loops in ten minutes. I’m pretty sure Leo writes that down. They write everything down. They probably weigh my shits and count my toe-nail clippings. I’m an experiment, a rat in a cage. That makes me smile.
Three weeks later I’m counting. Four, Five, 1782. I jangle my way down the corridor. Clink, clink, like a homeless man with two dimes in a tin mug. Inmates pound on their cell doors in solidarity. I concentrate on staying upright. It’s harder than you’d think with all the restraints. I wobble a bit and try to remember the name of the old guy I took care of. He’d sometimes set off on his own, without his Zimmer frame, and forget how to walk. He’d wind up a pile of bone and pyjamas and saggy skin. I’m sure he’d thank me.
Into the van with Joel and his three friends. He talks about deer hunting. I hear the supporters chant as we pass. I can’t see out the van but I imagine them waving placards, with slogans and my photo on them. I picture flip-flopped amnesty supporters in their yellow t-shirts. I picture the religious types with their votives and hymns. I picture a few rooting for things to go the other way, too.
Out the van, counting again. Three, Four, 4820, 6940, into the waiting room. The tiles on the walls are so shiny they send out distorted reflections. Then comes the stream of visitors. The medics pronounce me fit for death. The psychologist confirms I’m in the right frame of mind, plenty sane and intelligent enough to understand what’s coming.
The chaplain comes next. He sits right next to me, his thigh touching mine. He talks about justice, repentance, redemption. I’m only half listening. I’m thinking that now is the time to ask him about the soul wafting thing. Instead I ask him: why didn’t God have the mercy to set them free? He doesn’t have an answer.
Counting again. Two, three, 23. Novel smells everywhere: sweet perfume and pastrami. Even the air tastes different, fluffier, lighter. Flanked by a crew of five, I pass the threshold. The kill room is the green of peppermint gum. One, two, 17 and I’m stood before the gurney. Looking up, beige blinds cover the one-way mirror. Behind them my witnesses are sat uncomfortably on folding metal chairs. Relatives of the souls I released. And seventeen salivating reporters I’m told drew lots for their seats. Maybe mom is in there too. I haven’t seen her since I came to this place. I think I’d have liked to tell her goodbye. I remember that summer, dad throwing us off the pier into Lake Powell, mom making ice-cream sundaes she called magic mountains.
I look at each face as I move further into the room. One, by one, by one. Two men guard the trolley, rippling their biceps. I get myself up onto the gurney and they strap me down, securing the five black straps across my chest and thighs. Then padded leather cuffs around my wrist and ankles. I feel like I’m about to ride one of those zero gravity machines. You ask if I’m comfortable. I watch you all moving about. The technician compliments my lovely veins and the lines are in place in no time. It falls quiet. The stage is set.
It’s you I want to see most, warden. You, God of this institution. My head is fixed in place but I strain my eyeballs and find you by the old-fashioned black phone. Your hands are clasped in front of you and you’re rocking back and forth on your heels. You’re staring off into the distance, won’t notice my eyes on you. I wonder what you’re hoping they’ll say when they ring.
The whole world is holding their breath, like everyone has died for a brief moment. You pick up on the first ring. After long moments, you speak quietly into the receiver and your eyes at last, and for the first time, make contact with mine. They are empty pits. I wonder if you’ll remember my name, in years to come, or whether it will just slip away. It’s easier than you’d think to forget these details.
I listen to your words as you confirm and affirm that my sentence will be carried out as per protocol this night, 6th of June, 2013.
The blinds open.
I see myself in the mirror. Arms outstretched, legs strapped together. A crucifixion pose. IV lines snake out from my elbows, across the floor, and into the chemical room where the three of them sit. The trinity, unseen and unknown, with their Russian roulette of syringes. The mic hangs above my head on its black wire. You approach and tell the audience that I’ve decided not to say anything. The reporters will be disappointed, they probably all had their biros touching the page. I surprise even myself by breaking into song – Give Me Joy In My Heart. They let me get through to the end, all five verses. I have a beautiful voice. Mom used to call me her nightingale. The last note drops off into a confused silence that turns to excitement.
I’d planned to stare at you, warden, right to the end. Are you really so different from me? That’s what my eyes were going ask. That was the plan. But my heart beats so fiercely, surges against my eardrums. My breathing comes in gasps like I’m inhaling through a wet cloth. I imagine this is what drowning feels like. This is fear, I realise.
Now I writhe, wriggle, fight against the restraints. My cheeks are wet. I’m not ready to die. For weeks they said it was going to happen, but they’ve said that before. Will they, won’t they - it swung back and forth like a hangman in the wind. Now isn’t my time. I knew that when I counted my way into this room. I knew as I laid myself on this trolley as an offering to God’s vengeance. I knew that as I sang my farewell hymn. No, I’m not ready. I’m fucking terrified. They all carry on. They move about like robots on a factory floor. Enacting justice. Good clinical justice.
I fight harder. I pray even for technical hitches. There’s a warmth in my left hand; supple young fingers stroke over my palm. The touch sears, but I can’t pull away. I clench my teeth, taste blood. I think I’m shouting. My unseeing eyeballs roll around frantically. I’m demented. I’ve wet myself. Saliva and spittle drip down my chin. Then