Less Brave

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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. 

Nicole Miyashiro
Nicole Miyashiro writes fiction and poetry and is an editor for the Pennsylvania Center for the Book at Penn State University. She has published stories, poems, and reviews, including one Pushcart Prize nominee. She created ‘Words of Art,’ an ekphrastic audio poem project, and is writing other stories linked to "Spectators" and "I Will."

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