Every Day

 

It has been years since it happened. She is a still mother. Meaning, she keeps her body very still and she still considers herself a mother. She is rigid about this.
 
She sits, hand-over-hand, and holds your eyes in her gaze, because she has never backed down from talking about her mistake, although others might. Others might cower and remain passive and quiet and hope to disappear and be forgotten, but not her. Not Maddie, who was born Madeline and who had always questioned things incessantly as a child, but why? Why, Mommy — do people die?
 
And you know that Maddie, now grown, with the knowledge of life’s most cruel lessons, would be the first to give a straight answer – is about to answer it straight out.
 
From her experience.
 
“You see. There was this woman at the bus stop,” she says.
 
“This woman, she seems unrelated to everything else, but she is who I think of, because she was standing there at that bus stop every time I drove by on my route to work.
 
“The thing about it is, I can see her in my mind there at the bus stop. She wore sneakers and cropped spandex pants and a t-shirt. She held a rolled yoga mat beneath her arm, and the impression I had of her was: here is a pleasant, gentle woman on her way to yoga. She was smiling, not at me of course, there was a distance between us, but to herself, smiling with peacefulness.
 
“The traffic light would turn, and I would drive my car along the curve, maybe catch a glimpse of her in the rearview, and go about my day. So, you see, I expected her there, and she’d be there. She fit right into place with a happy ease, and I always liked seeing her. It was comforting to see her there, on her way to yoga, me on my way to work, the two of us doing what we both did at that time on those days.
 
“Funny thing is,” she leans towards you as if to indicate the secretive part.
 
“I saw her, right? Every day, but I didn’t see her at all. Maybe she was a bit older than me, maybe had some gray slipping through her long braid, a slight curve to her stance, but she was fit and light and, like I said, gentle. From my perspective. Here was this distant, gentle presence I was used to seeing every day, but if she walked up to me, I wouldn’t know her. I wouldn’t know her at all,” she sits back into her chair with defeat.
 
This is not the sort of story you press someone to rush. Especially because you know how it ends.
 
Maddie stares past the opened window of her sitting room and out toward her lawn that rolls and dips for an acre to meet the road hidden by the curving land and its full trees. You know the road is there because you came in on it. You’ve driven to her house often and while none of its interior has changed – framed portraits on the walls, green palms curling out from a clay vase, the coffee table book askew and opened to a cloud-draped mountainscape – so much is missing.
 
You lean into the paisley pillow that has always been in this armchair and can feel that a once familiar energy in the house has fallen away.
 
A mild breeze washes over you and then disperses, some of it expanding inside your chest with new space. This is one sign that the window is opened. The other is that you see that it is. The room has not been stuffy so much as still. And it is not nearly as hot as a typical summer day, like the day Maddie is getting to talking about.
 
“So,” she says. “In the morning, my alarm went off at 5:50. I always allow for 10 blinking minutes before I force my body out of bed. By six, I get myself up, peek at Kirkland’s baby monitor, make sure he’s okay, still resting quiet.
 
“Now, I can go on and on about the daily habits: using the bathroom, teeth brushing, face cream application…, but those I’ll leave out. The important part here is how automatic, yet precious it all was – seeing Kirkland asleep in the morning, still dreaming, safe and warm in bed. The feeling was devine. Perfect. Looking back, well, there was nothing better than moments like that, slipping into his shaded, sun-sliced bedroom and planting one on that smooth, giving cheek of his. He’d grumble and move a little before falling quiet and still again.”
 
She laughs. “So peaceful and sweet to watch him there with his eyes closed and dreams swimming in his head…
 
“Oh, but, what I’m meaning to say is, at the time it was all so tender and it was rushed and distracted, too. I’d be thinking about the next task, the next step, in a moment like that. And you see, that was where things had started to go wrong. So terribly wrong.” It’s the first you hear a quiver in her voice and see her smile fall to a numb plateau.
 
You hear her swallow.
 
“Let me get to the point.
 
“The mornings were the same, you see. Any memory I have could have come from any one of those mornings or a combination of them all. Every morning, there was brushing teeth, dressing, eating, packing his daycare bag, combing his hair, all of it in loosely the same order, but always those same things, the things that needed to be done.
 
“John and I each played our part, had a role. Makes it easy, right? Automatic.
 
“I snapped Kirkland into the rear-facing car seat of John’s car. Kissed him, told him I loved him… Every day. Whenever I closed that car door, stood back, hand-to-hip, waving my goodbyes, well that was the click in my routine, when things turned over from seeing that Kirkland was good and ready for daycare to then hustling to dress and get myself ready for work. My morning responsibilities with Kirkland were complete once John took over, driving off into the sun-filling morning.
 
 “It was warm even early on that day. When I snapped Kirkland into his car seat, something different happened after that. Different, yet the same as every other day. Routine is not the same as remembering, I’ve come to find. You can move forward on routine without really thinking, without noticing… In a way, things were going just as they should, just as they always had. That’s where the tragedy lies. It was such a simple change, I had already forgotten it.
 
“You’re thinking, how could a mother do that? Plain forget? And I could go on and on with how harried our mornings sometimes were or how the occasional pressure of a work project gripped my brain or how the fog of an unexpected bill could hover every step of my morning, but these were not always happening and certainly not happening all at once, and on this day, well… I did receive an unexpected work call after buckling Kirk in, and this was also a different sort of thing, not common in my routine.
 
“I took the call.
 
“Thing is, I was already dressed and ready for work, because I had to be that day, which had me gearing toward work-related thought and the part of my morning that carried me the rest of the way there. The call pushed my mind over the edge to that side, the work side, and before you know it, I was driving to work, like I always did. Every day. I was on the road, in my routine, but obviously things were different, I just wasn’t seeing it.
 
“Remember that woman?”
 
You nod.
 
“She wasn’t there. The bus stop felt bare and ominous as I passed, steering the car through the turn, thinking, no yoga today? And I actually felt disappointed or maybe even a twinge of fear that she might be sick. Or gone. Something terrible.
 
“That’s what stays with me, that woman, that moment. Because, I went ahead to work, parked the car, and heard the air conditioner expire with a huff as I clicked off the ignition—at least, that’s the way I think of it in my mind, an abrupt hush yelling at me with a final rush of cool air. Then I got out.
 
“I locked that car.”
 
A tear runs down her cheek. Though you know where it came from, it seems unlikely to have come from such a wide and wakeful stare. She doesn’t move to wipe the wet streak away. She breathes deep, and there has been no breeze through the window since that single one, but the temperature in the room is weightless, comfortable.
 
“By 11am, it was 89 degrees,” she reminds you. “By 12, above 90. Here I was dipping my head into offices, shuffling papers, making calls in the cool air-conditioned building and outside…” She gulps air.
 
You expect a rush of tears, a cowering sob to follow, but she won’t allow it. She sucks shaky breaths in and then steadies them on the way out until she can speak again.
 
“There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think of it. How, at first, he must have felt those swatches of sun warming his skin, the kind that’s sort-of soothing after blasts of air conditioning have been turned off. But then… he must have noticed he was alone, that I was gone. He must have waited patiently at first, because it was in his nature. So patient, easygoing. He was not a kid who threw tantrums or who would cause any kind of ruckus. After a while, though, panic must have risen in his chest, consuming him worse than that awful heat – the idea that his mother had left him.”
 
Her face becomes pale, and you want to tell her to stop. That there is no need for her to go on. But you see that she will continue with her story. She must.
 
“I imagine him calling and calling for me. Every day I hear him. I see him trapped in that car and swallowed by that horror, that hurt, of being left there alone. His own mother, for Christsake. I’d locked him in!”
 
You’ve forgotten yourself, and she sees your shock, the exaggerated whites of your eyes, before you can lower your gaze to the floor. But Maddie does not accept pity.
 
“Listen to me,” she says, taking your hand as if all of this has something to do with you, and this makes you want to stand and leave, to deny that you see it now, that you understand how all of this could have happened without anyone being able to stop it. “John asked me to drop Kirkland off at daycare that day, and I planned on it. I did. I’d prepared everything earlier by just a few minutes.
 
“That woman at the bus stop. She wasn’t there, and I noticed. But didn’t. I think about that every day. That moment.”
 
She releases her grip on your hand and then sits back with a resigned sigh.
 
“Every day I miss him.”

I Will

 

His friends were also there to see what might go wrong, and Ned was fine with that.
 
Rising sunlight skimmed the trees lining the shore of the beach park and dispersed into a pencil-gray sky that seemed to hush them as they watched Ned wrap wool over each ankle of his long-johns and then tie it with scraps of rope he’d collected from the docks. Underneath was another layer, he explained. The water tapped and swayed below them on the narrow pier, and Ned’s friends puttered with arms crossed, impressed with their own breath rising in forced plumes and impatient with Ned’s meticulous tinkering.
 
None of them were as daring as Edwin James Finith – Ned, they called him – and he knew this, but it was more than showmanship that drove his curiosity and self-imposed duty to see things through. He was square-headed, had strict posture, and was lean, yet toned with the grit of growing up on the Puget Sound, lifting salmon crates, clearing lines, and tying fenders as a deckhand on weekends and after school. He carried his heavy tasks with swift, light footing and a grin that curved up his cheek with not exactly arrogance, but an invitation to come closer, to watch and learn, lean in to be wowed.
 
“You’ve got what under all that?” Cliff asked. He would be an imposing presence among them – was a year older, a senior, and much broader in stature – but for his patient, studious nature. He really wanted to know: “You said nylons? For women?”
 
The twins snickered.
 
“Stealing from your mom’s underwear drawer, Neddy? Shame on you!” Mel teased, his wide, ruddy face creasing with laughter. Dennis looked nothing like his twin, with his dark, glossy hair and jutting nose, but often matched his brother’s goofing. “Yeah, sick!” he felt the need to add.
 
Ned was too focused to acknowledge their heckling. He was driven. A touch crazy, some would say. But he had ideas, like buying up all of the WWII bomber masks and goggles from the surplus store. There was no reason not to take him seriously. And Ned had known his friends long enough to be sure at least one of them would jump in if he began to drown.
 
But he did not expect to drown.
 
I am gonna breathe under there, he had yell-whispered to them in the movie theater while they had watched the underwater scenes in The Frogmen a year back, how those military divers slid beneath the water’s surface, rocketing through blooms of self-made bubbles powered by swimfins and breathing air fed by three-cylinder tanks strapped to their backs. No one had seen a thing like that before, but Ned had seen it all along, had already been dreaming up ways to do it himself.
 
“What do I do again?” Mel teased, tipping the head of the bike pump into one hand, then the other. “A few pumps and then…?” he turned his palm up with a shrug.
 
“C’mon,” Ned said, tying the last bit of wool to his ankle. Then he stood with a tilted grin, taking a heavy step weighted by pads of lead he’d slipped into his tennis shoes. “I’ll be drinkin’ water if you quit pumping.” He laughed with them, was also one of them. Yet was also aware of their tendency to stand at his side while teasing the whole way, reluctant to fully commit, to envision the whole course without question.
 
He took the pump from Mel’s hands and did a quick demo, though he’d shown them all before. “Fast and even,” he said, moving his arms in a spurt of pumps. “No stopping ‘til I’m up.” He stepped over the partially uncoiled pile of rubber tubing he’d attached to the pump hose, handing the “T” of the handle back to Mel. “Take turns if you need to.”
 
He hoped they would have the stamina to feed him air for a good five-to-ten minutes. A much longer time than when he’d sunk that carved out water tank with an anchor, and this new method would feed him a continuous airflow, just like those Navy divers had. He wouldn’t have to waste time paddling back to a tank for every breath.
 
“You trust me?” Mel ribbed, tipping the pump handle from one hand into the other.
 
Ignoring him, Ned double-checked the clamp on the pump hose, then did a hopscotch over the thick coils to check the mask hose clamped at the other end. Finally, he took the mask and then sat with his legs over the end of the pier. He fastened one side of it to a leather helmet, and then began fitting the gear to his head, eventually snapping the last buttons along his jawline.
 
“Oh shit,” Dennis boomed, “he’s really doing it!”
 
With his hair, nose, and cheeks covered, and the mask slimming toward its hose tip like a pointed mandible, Ned looked like a bug, a misshapen creature who escaped a science fiction lab. Only his eyes were visible, and they scrunched with a hidden grin as he threw a straight-armed thumbs up to them before lowering his goggles over the only part of his face left to cover. This was absurd! Terrific! he knew his friends were thinking. Cliff, who’d been quieter than usual, stepped toward Ned with his fingers pinching his chin as if he had another question, but before Cliff could get to him—splash! Ned was in the water.
 
Dennis gave a hoot, Mel worked the pump up and down, up and down, no longer laughing or smiling, and Cliff remained stilled in place.
 
Ned was descending, six feet, then eight, he pushed water up in a backwards stroke to aid the weight in his tennis shoes, drifting down, down, down, the water extending above him, turning greenish-brown to darker brown as he sank. It was surreal, air reaching his mouth, not full and sure, but there, rushing his throat in dry bursts, providing just enough to sustain him, and there he was, bubbles tapping down his chin, in the sea taking breath. His feet touched bottom, and by his count he was 15-to-20 feet down and had as much time as his friends could endure pumping.
 
Already he thought himself victorious.
 
Any second now, he’d see what few men had ever seen. He had become supernatural, swaying his arms under water and breathing, like a spirit peeking in on the sea, where so many creatures he’d caught and observed lurked: the hard shell crabs, spindle-legged shrimp, and darting salmon. The oddities he and his friends had collected in glass bowls: tubesnouts, bombers, moon jellies… A finned something darted past in the distance, then was gone. Something large, swift. A dogfish? Mud shark? Or—? He couldn’t resist the image prodding him again: a boy riding a fish. Not a fish, a dolphin. A boy riding atop a dolphin as if on horseback as it leaped out of the ocean.
 
Ned took a weighted step forward, then two, careful not to pull his tubing taut, but eager to see, wanting the animal to reveal itself. To ride a dolphin! Always this triumphant image from a childhood book called to him in moments like this, as if he was already a wise, aged man reflecting on a lifetime. As if he already knew—
 
His chest tightened and breath tapped a staccato. The airflow had slowed, the gusts arriving less measured, a tad weaker. But Ned kept his feet at bottom, looked this way and that, with a small, yellowish cod zipping by his nose and a desire to see more, more, so much more, something much bigger. His racing heart and the erratic bubbles spurting from his mask were not symptoms of dwindling air but of adrenaline, a tease at a challenge.
 
Next time, I will swim deeper, stay under longer, Ned decided, before ascending to safety, before even knowing whether he had succeeded. This was how a goal existed in him, never as a question of whether or not, but rather a certain: I will.
 
He stepped forward again. This time pulling the tubing tight and causing the right side of his mask to unsnap. Water rushed his nose and mouth, and bubbles galloped over his lips and scattered the view through his goggles. How quickly he’d grown accustomed to breathing among the fish, because as he turned his head attempting to clear his view, the bubbles kept coming, kept escaping until he remembered: he would need another breath. He needed to adjust the mask quickly or his next mouthful would be seawater. With flailing arms, he brought the mask back to his mouth, then gulped one last gust of air before kicking off the sand, rocketing himself towards the surface and letting the mask flap his face and spill bubbles as he ascended.
 
“Just don’t stop!” Cliff told Mel. Mel reenergized his pumping as they all looked to the surge of bubbles breaking surface and the tubing bobbing like an umbilical cord, rust-shadowed and vague in the water. They guessed Ned was right under there, close, each of them wondering if maybe they should have protested against their oddball of a friend going under like that, yet their bodies coursed with the very energy they suspected had thrust them into life in the first place. Or at least made life an adventure to be lived.
 
“There!” Dennis shouted.
 
Gasping at the surface, water splashed into Ned’s eyes, a result of his own thrashing. His goggles were gone, though he did not know how or when. Soon Cliff was gripping him hard under the arm, so hard a pinching squeeze radiated across Ned’s chest. He coughed, but could not help smiling as salt water stung his nose and struck a lightening of pain between his eyes.
 
“Ned, man, you did it!” Mel said, standing over him, hands to his hips and rapt with an enthusiasm Ned took pleasure in.
 
Cliff snatched the towels Dennis held out to him and draped one over Ned, who was now crouched on the shore. Ned lowered his head to rattle off another cough. Then he raised it, dizzy with swallowed bubbles and the buzz of a real-life superpower. He punched his fist into the air, and his friends cheered.
 
“Who’s next?” he asked without expectation. In a couple of years they would each give it a go, using wetsuits made of neoprene and manufactured regulators and tanks no longer exclusive to the Navy. But not this first time, not today.
 
“Ah, Neddy!” they said to him, failing to subdue their excitement, their fright. Their relief to have him as a friend and not be him.
 
He coughed and coughed, spraying his palms with blood-speckled saliva this time, and then bared the red gloss in his teeth with a wide, hungry grin.

Less Brave

This isn’t something he can back out of. Not now, with the flaps of his sports coat being patted down, his cell phone, keys, and wallet confiscated – only a pair of latex gloves allowed to remain in his pocket. Not while a metal detector slides up and down his starched chino pant leg.

It’s too late.

The prison guard leads through a hall of concrete floors, white cinderblock walls, and chrome gates. Derek follows. Even the guard’s gray uniform is belted with shiny parts: badge, gun, clicking cuffs. His I.D. tag reads, Ralph. His strides are powerful and his arms swing to carefree heights, hinting at a complacency with the job.

Derek is here as a favor. And Derek doesn’t back out of favors. He would never call his colleague pretending, my wife and I are leaving town for a horse show, or one of the mares fell ill, very ill… No. Just the thought of shirking an obligation humiliates him.

“You could call off,” his wife Gillian teased. When he tried to envision it – a free day to maybe ride to the coast, air whipping through his car windows, his speed accelerating, and then accelerating some more with an illogical attempt to outrun his thoughts of undue chaos at the hospital, a possible delay of procedure at the prison, and a mess of scheduling headaches he’d cause everyone to suffer – even his benign fantasy couldn’t break from the promise he’d made.

He’s a man of his word.

A man whose mouth shrinks against his teeth when he smiles, as if recently stripped of a mature mustache, and who wears socks with clogs in the summertime to account for Florida air-conditioning. His steps brush the floor with the comfortable rhythm he finds with respecting authority, though he has never been to a prison. He’s startled by a beeping alarm and then stopped in front of the first solid gate, one with only a crescent of spindles at the top, too far above anyone’s head to offer a view. It unlatches with a hard clack.

Officer Ralph directs him to pass through first. Derek offers a cooperative grin; the office bares a closed-jaw set of teeth at him in response. No need for him to take it personally.

He guesses drawing smiles from transplant and tonsillectomy patients might seem out-of-place too, but that’s his routine during preoperative rounds at Vernon Hospital. Major surgery to standard procedure, all patients are a little nervous about the hours ahead. What if I do wake up, they often fret. Or what if I don’t?

Derek obligates himself to quiet their worries, not just because it’s appropriate bedside manner, but because it’s his nature. Whether it be with pep-talks to colleagues or agreeable nods to Gillian, he appeases those around him, makes them comfortable, happy. It is just as common for his patients to feel eased by his tireless goodwill as it is for their pain to be numbed by his administration of anesthesia.

But here, where a door opens out from the white wall, revealing another guard who inspects him, he can barely maintain eye contact with the officers. Ralph begins muttering to the other guard, and the gesture is exclusive. The whole facility, Derek begins to notice, hums with its hidden devices and the buzz of white lights. It’s like the electronics section of a department store, where even muted screens raise arm hair.

“…Fries,” Derek hears pop from their chatter as they walk ahead of him. “And a milkshake.” The word milkshake is delivered as a curse, because they’re talking about Uriel Deed.

Uriel Deed the murderer, who drank a chocolate shake with his last meal and will never have another. Who will never have another taste of anything—except the metallic tinge that will cool the back of his throat when Derek retracts the first injection.

This stuns Derek.

He didn’t think about this before. The significance of a last meal. It didn’t cross his mind three days ago, while he was relieving himself in the hospital men’s room.

***

He was thinking about Uriel Deed pressing record on an old boom box before cutting into someone. Murder wasn’t enough to describe it. Even ten years later, the crimes were still known as, The Deed Recordings—a collection of adolescent voices being cut-short by commonplace kitchen cutlery.

Death songs, some called it.

“A hunt for the grittiest scream, or what?” Derek’s colleague, Jay Adams, stood two urinals over, speculating motives at a volume that dominated his tinkling.

“Quite possible,” Derek said.

“Whatever the case, he deserves what’s coming. Just wish I hadn’t double-booked procedures.”

“Need me to cover?”

“You up to it?”

“Sure.” Derek zipped-up and, in the time it took to relieve himself, had agreed to take a life. Though, it wasn’t obvious at first.

Everyone knew the execution was on Friday, which meant Adams had another procedure that same day and time. Derek began hushing thoughts of coming off a long Friday shift and coasting into an evening at home—Gillian’s pizza craving playing out as usual (him agreeing without mention of his hunger for pork in a saucy lo mein) and a movie of her choice, waiting to blur the hustle of his work week… He stopped the thoughts there. Derek wouldn’t be selfish. He was selfless. Missing pizza night was a small sacrifice for resolving a friend’s dilemma.

“You’re savin’ my ass.” Adams closed the sink faucet and tore off a paper-towel, telling how prison guards were in training for future ‘sticks.’ “Leaving us out of it. Think of it, you could be the last M.D. to do it.”

“Wait. Me?”

“Yeah, can you imagine? Listen, I’ll call County right away, tell them to expect you.”

Derek stood at the sink, forgot what to do with his hands in the water. County prison. He’d be the one going there to…

“Well, ah… Wouldn’t you rather I take the other procedure? The—what’s the other?”

“Nah. You take the high-dollar one. My treat. You’re doing me a favor here.”

“Really, I didn’t expect to—”

“C’mon, I’ll be insulted if you don’t. It’s the least I can do.”

Awkward in this perceived kindness and the embarrassment of misunderstanding, Derek turned his hands in the water without words; Adams crumpled his towel and was moving towards the men’s room exit. But Derek didn’t know how—in the twenty seconds it was taking Adams to thank him, calling him ‘a hell-of-a-guy’—to retract his offer without deflating Adams’ delight with both solving his problem and repaying Derek. And why not? Derek had no immediate reason why not to assist the execution, and every reason to: because he’d already agreed.

“Hey,” Adams said, halfway out the door. “I owe you one.”

The door closed, and Derek’s hands idled in the frigid cold water.

***

As they slow their progression down the corridor, Ralph and Derek approach a tiny table against the wall that displays a neat row of plastic-wrapped masks.

“Optional,” Ralph says, pointing to them without breaking his stride. “If you’re one to conceal identity.”

Derek passes them by, curious to hear that a reporter, a few locals, and a couple of Uriel Deed’s family members will be watching. Ralph calls them ‘witnesses.’

Imagining a handful of people in any one room of this place only emphasizes the empty buzz that fills the halls. It’s as if the place is new, open only for private showings. The mess of spit and violence Derek had always expected of a prison is so cleanly absent that he begins to wonder if it’s all caged in one room.

Ralph stops in front of a chrome door with a double-paned window. He taps a combination into the keypad, and the door beeps. “PG-13 compared to Ol’ Sparky,” he says, with another smiling-at-you grin. He backs his body against the door to hold it open. “After you.”

Again, Derek smiles back. Such an easy smile, so quick to give in. His mouth tightens as he enters the small room that remains uncluttered by the tight course of activity: Uriel Deed being propped onto a white-sheeted gurney.

Deed’s eyes are open wide, yet withdrawn. His face is shaven and damp hair sticks to his forehead. He wears a loose, sky-blue jumpsuit, the color of hospital gowns where Derek works. Last week, a strung-out ER patient who required sedation struggled against the collective hold of four medical staff.

Here, Uriel Deed is steady and compliant as the guards belt his arms to the gurney. They tighten the suitcase-like straps around his ankles, below his knees, around his thighs and hips, and across his shoulders.

When finished, they prompt Derek to approach.

He takes the latex gloves from his pocket. One vein is all that’s needed.

Derek thinks Deed must have smiled once – as a small boy, singing cartoon theme-songs or being tickled by his father. Now he stares, detached. Not a flinch, while Derek presses two fingers into the meat of his left arm. No heed toward Derek’s placating grin.

A grin Derek must restrain from offering to a man who recorded kills. Who labeled one of the cassettes, A Girl Called Joanne – Cries for Mom and Sister.

“I can still hear them,” Deed says, as if he forgot to tell them.

“Quiet,” Ralph orders.

Deed laughs, a quick, satisfied laugh. A reminder that he knows more than what the news reported: …a boy spat curses between breaths… a girl, in accepting no escape, had mumbled a rhythmic, religious chant. He holds no shame in his posture as Derek sticks his vein, and Derek wonders if he’s proud of his guilt and resists the urge to hurry, flushing the IV with care.

Ralph hands him surgical tape and Derek wraps the IV to Uriel Deed’s arm, not too quickly, not too tight. He smooths the last piece of tape and then flips a valve to open the bag that hangs from the IV pole. Saline runs into Deed’s bloodstream.

Ralph pulls a lever, and the gurney hums, tilting Deed semi-upright to face the curtain. The retracting curtain reveals a female reporter in a suit with loose hair banded by bulky sunglasses and a steno pad in hand; two women sitting close together, one of them trembling from grief or age, Derek isn’t sure; and two middle-aged men wearing college T-shirts.

“Uriel Deed,” Ralph announces. “Your last words.”

Deed stares at the audience.

The reporter is vigilant, wide-eyed, with pen aimed at steno pad, waiting and ready. The trembling woman squeezes a crumple of tissue, her other hand grasped by the woman’s beside her, who doesn’t look toward the chamber window.

“They all screamed,” Uriel Deed says. “Different sounds.”

The trembling woman closes her eyes. Then opens them. The reporter’s pen moves with intent.

“The tapes could never capture the true noise. The mess of it. So sorry.”

The two men scoff.

“I tried to listen. I tried. But it always came off fake. Like it wasn’t real.”

The reporter looks up from her notes. A hush consumes the room, and it’s hard for Derek not to imagine an audio tape rolling into its bumpy static until that first, meek, No, then, PLEASE, no— 

He refocuses, waiting for Uriel Deed to finish, feeling ready for the job. It should be quick and easy. He’ll turn each syringe into the insertion point and push the solution into the tube, sending it swimming toward the threaded vein.

Ralph turns to Derek with a nod. 

Uriel Deed has said all he’ll say.

Surprised by this, Derek does his job and attaches the first syringe. Then pushes—sodium thiopental, to numb consciousness.

Derek watches the solution run its course and, in the moment, finds unexpected comfort in his surroundings. The white walls and shiny chrome. The slick, clean chamber. He is even-keeled, confident in his task.

Uriel Deed closes his eyes, appearing to doze. The many straps holding him becoming less and less necessary.

Ralph’s cautious stare and crossed arms are no distractions to Derek now. There’s a familiar method to the order here: the empty syringe comes off. The next one on: pacuronium bromide, to paralyze the body like the hardening paste in a papier-mâché mask. It prevents squirming, wringing of hands. Screaming.

The reporter rests the steno pad in her lap; the trembling woman kneads tissue between finger and thumb, her face dry.

The potassium chloride in the last syringe will disrupt the electrical signals of Uriel Deed’s heart. And with one fluid push, Derek empties it.

Deed’s eyelids twitch. His lips part. A rush of air escapes his throat.

The trembling woman sits up; the reporter writes a word; the woman who didn’t look before, watches.

His pulse rushes his large artery, bulging at his neck, and then stops.

His body is vacant. No twitching. No breath.

He is gone.

***

The ignition rumbles in the parking lot, and Derek sits at the wheel with the car in park.

He was told to expect a check in the mail as he left the prison. Ralph thanked him, shook his hand with, no longer a smirk, but a cool nod that Derek could only describe as gratitude.

None of the witnesses cried or covered their eyes. No one even stood from their seats; they had to be told it was over.

It is done.

They all screamed, Uriel Deed said, and this bothers Derek now. He shifts into drive, switches the radio on. Then off. He is nothing like Uriel Deed. No, no. Nothing like him. But somehow, he feels far less brave.