I have killed twenty three men since the war ended in ‘45. I killed on the orders of my country during the war, and when it ended I did not stop killing.
Some days I think twenty three is too many.
Most days I think this.
Fifteen of my forty nine years have been spent here, Texas State Penitentiary. Huntsville Unit. Almost every day for fifteen years I have looked down the centreline of the Merciful Alleyway. Almost every day for fifteen years, I have prayed for my turn to walk that centreline. For my chance at mercy. For my chance at forgiveness. For my chance to pay.
My chance never comes. I am denied penance, and only guilt remains. The guilt grows, an ivy strangling my mind, roots feeding on my soul; it grows when I think of those men. I am always thinking of them.
Twenty three men. Twenty three faces I cannot forget.
Too many men, I think.
Too many faces.
I sit watching another killer through the bars. This killer is my friend. The best meal that he has ever seen goes uneaten, untouched. I watch my friend fail to eat his best, last meal.
Fifteen years in the Huntsville death row and I’ve made some good friends. Each one has walked down the centreline of the Merciful Alleyway and my friendship has walked with them. Walking by their side, never down the centreline. Robbers, rapists. Torturers, traitors. Murderers, madmen.
Still men. Still friends.
Killers who have gone to pay their dues, while I am denied from paying mine. Killers who have left their last meal uneaten knowing their absolution is near, while I choke down food that tastes of grave-dirt and future grief. They went forward, down the Merciful Alleyway, while I waited. I wait still. I wait with the twenty three souls I carry like stones around my heart.
All my friends walk the centreline. Eventually.
This friend walks today.
My friends, these killers like me, are mostly hard men. Most men are hard when they get here, even the ones with cracking voices, barely out of short pants. Hard men, made hard by living in a world that is friend to no one. Hard men, they spit, they curse and they boast through the bars when I first speak to them kindly. They laugh a hard man’s laugh. For these men friendship is a weakness in a world that punishes the weak. So they spit, they curse and they boast, avoiding connection lest they be exposed. They laugh.
The laughter always stops. Eventually.
This friend is not laughing today.
Not much to laugh about near the Merciful Alleyway. The Merciful Alleyway swallows laughter, swallows boasts. It is a python that swallows hard men, cracking and dissolving their hardness. Leaving only bones.
To look at, the Merciful Alleyway is little different to any other corridor in Huntsville Unit. Eggshell walls. White ceiling, grey hanging lights that burn too bright. Bare concrete floor. The real difference is the centreline. A single yellow line running the entire length of death row, leading to stainless steel double doors. The line passes each of the eight cells, down the fifty strides that is the Merciful Alleyway and into the last room.
Only the condemned walk the centreline. No one else, not the guards, not the chaplain. You walk the centreline and then you die.
Fifty strides down the yellow line. Fifty strides every killer takes. Eventually.
Every killer but me.
My friend takes fifty strides today.
For most of these men, these killers like me, the Merciful Alleyway centreline holds the promise of their execution more than anything else on death row. More than the steel double doors, or the simple wooden cross that sits above it. More than those glimpses into the last room when open for cleaning. More than the teary visits from family that taper off as the date gets closer (these visits always taper off – eventually). The yellow line is the guide. The ferryman. It takes these men, these killers, these friends, across the river, across the corridor, to their end.
But not me. For me, the centreline is a promise not kept. The ferryman I cannot pay. Twenty three dead men on my hands, and I still do not have the coin to pay.
And so I wait on this side of the river, on this side of the centreline.
While I wait I make friends.
Men need friends, need friendship. Killers are no different, but nothing is harder for a killer than making a friend. Killing a man separates you from other men. A man’s death hangs on you like a shroud. A killer will wall himself up, a solitary prisoner of their own guilt. A prisoner of their own hardness. The only friend a killer can hope to have is another killer.
They see the killer in me, the lives that I took. They see the rubble of my own walls, my own hardness, long ago broken down by the Merciful Alleyway’s centreline. When the laughter stops, when the boasting stops, when the centreline’s eaten their hardness, when their walls are nothing but crumbling sand. That’s when killers become friends.
Today my friend dies, and I envy him his release.
Occasionally I meet someone who is not hard. They don’t have the walls, their humanity is still a beacon and it shines out of them. Like this man, my friend.
Many would argue a man ought to be able to shave, ought to not wet the bed or cry, but the Texas Courts say he is a man. He faces his death like a man.
I don’t ask what a man so young has done. I feel the shame of my own crimes too fiercely to ask questions.
This man is kind. Softly spoken, intelligent. Young.
Today is the day he dies.
Three months he has been on the row. Three months from conviction to death. No appeals. No money is my guess. No visitors. Three months.
I barely keep my jealousy in check, as he needs my friendship now, but my reassuring words feel bitter. I yearn for the finish, for the end, for the penance for my crimes. Fifteen years… I could weep, but they would be selfish tears. Tears for me, not him.
Are twenty three dead men not enough?
I bow my head. This is my lot. My grief is my punishment, and I accept it. But oh, how it hurts.
I watch him through the bars. Failing to eat his last meal. Rare steak and potatoes, rich gravy in a nearby jug. Untouched. I politely turn down his offer to share; I still taste the acid from throwing up my morning meal.
The number pounds over and over. A beat. Each pulse a railway spike driven through my head.
Twenty three, twenty three, twenty three…
I own the headache. Pain is my friend when my friends are executed. It is my friend when only I remain.
He rises, steadying himself against the table as his knees go momentarily weak. I speak to him, kindly, reassuring him that he is my friend, that I care. He thanks me, then nods to indicate his readiness.
A signal to the control panel operator in the next room, and his cell door opens. He steps forward, the chief prison guard in front, another guard behind. He is flanked by the Huntsville chaplain on his left, and my friendship on the right.
He walks the Merciful Alleyway centreline. My friendship walks with him.
I walk with him.
But not down the centreline.
The double doors open to the execution chamber, the last room. He enters. The guards and the chaplain enter. My friendship enters.
He sits in the chair, unaided. Brave. He is shackled. Blindfolded.
The chaplain stands with him. The guards stand with him. My friendship stands with him.
But I leave the room.
I walk through a small black door, into the soundproof control booth. My uniform is starched, pressed, creases you could shave with. My shoes, buttons shine. The room has two black doors facing each other. Back wall is bare. Front wall is adorned by a clock, a red light; lit, a green light; unlit; an old black phone.
And a switch.
No different to a light switch.
I wait for the phone call that I know will not come. It does not.
I wait for my chance to pay for the twenty three men I have killed. It will not come.
The clock ticks. The red light goes off and the green light comes on.
I flick the switch.
I have killed twenty four men since the war ended in ‘45. I killed on the orders of my country during the war, and when it ended I did not stop killing.
Twenty four men. Twenty four faces I cannot forget.
Too many men, I think.
Too many faces.
K R Thoroughgood, August 2014 (1500 words)
Flash Fiction Challenge, August 28 2014
This short ‘bite’ of fiction was my response to the ‘Let fate choose your title’ Flash Fiction Challenge posted by Chuck Wendig on his blog terribleminds.com. Chuck seems to set do these challenges over a week; this one started on Thursday August 28, with an end date Friday September 5. 1500 word limit. The link is provided below:
The format of this challenge was interesting – Chuck had forty ‘interesting words’ separated into two tables and numbered. Instructions were to get two random numbers between 1-20 and those two words were your title. The rest is up to the writer.
Once you have your title and your story, the writer should then post the story on their blog or other available online space, and link this to the comment section in Chuck’s post.
I rolled an eight (Merciful) and a two (Alleyway). The 1500 (yes, exactly) words you just read (or possibly scrolled past) was the result of this random roll.
I’ll admit to being a bit nervous about this one. This is my first Wendig challenge, and I’m honestly not sure what to expect. Will anyone read it?
I’m nervous because I tried some ‘literary devices’, and wonder have I found the right balance ? Repetition, parallelism. Has it worked and reinforced the images and themes? Or have I overdone it and bored the audience?
I’m nervous because originally I hated the words I rolled. They seemed clunky, and were absent even a hint of action. I seriously thought about changing my result (as an old dungeon master, I never looked at the results on the dice, I made up the result to suit the pacing of the game). But once the core ideas came to me, this story seemed to write itself.
I’m nervous because It’s also the first challenge piece in which I haven’t tried to be funny. There’s no joke here. I normally hide my nerves behind humour, and I fear the lack of its protection. It’s a cold hard internet out there.
But I think most of nervousness comes from the fact that I like it. I like the story and I want others to like it as well.
Anyway, thank you for reading this far. If you liked it, please let me know in the comments. If you didn’t like it (and that’s ok too; I’m nervous, not fragile) then I’d love to hear your thoughts on that too.