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.
13 thoughts on “The Merciful Alleyway”
Yes! People will read it! And it was a good idea for a story too.
There were parts where it dragged its feet a bit (I wasn’t worried for the narrator) and a few lines were a bit too ‘serious’. It was like “HEY. Look at this sentence, isn’t it so dramatic?”.
You done good. Keep ’em coming.
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Thanks mate – appreciate it 🙂
I suspect I might have kept writing to fill the word limit (bad habits from Uni essays)! I will reread in a month when it’s ‘cold’ to get some distance.
I had it figured out after the first guy didn’t eat his food, and it took a great measure of self control not to skip to the end to see if I was right. Well done!
Haha – I guess you can’t fool all the people all the time! Thanks for reading 🙂
Nice going – I liked it! It took me the proper amount of time into the story to guess who the narrator was – it felt like a nice reveal.
The repetition is interesting and *almost* works. I feel like the voice of the story wants to be conversational/verbal, and for a conversation the repetition is a great idea; people talk like that all the time. Except the voice in the story sounds a little too official to pass for conversation…
There are several places that were confusing and I think that slowed down the pacing for me. Some of those had sentence structure that felt unusual to me (but I am not a native english speaker, so take this with an extra grain of salt); for example:
“I killed on the orders of my country during the war, and when it ended I did not stop killing.” My brain assumes that the “it” refers to the orders or the country, and not the war.
“Some days I think twenty three is too many. Most days I think this.” The pause and the word placement in the second sentence make me pay attention to the “this”, and make me expect that what the narrator thinks most days will contradict what he things on some of them.
In some paragraphs, having three sentences with parallel structure *really* slows down the pacing. I think in some places having only two would keep the pace up and sound more thoughtful – because the reader can imagine more parallel adjectives, but not having them explicitly there creates a hanging silence.
“So they spit, they curse and they boast, avoiding connection lest they be exposed.” Here, “connection” distracts my attention because it doesn’t feel like the kind of vocabulary the narrator would use. Not sure of an alternative synonym. “Kinship”? Enjoying the rhythm of the rhyming here, though. 🙂
“A killer will wall themselves up, a solitary prisoner of their own guilt.” Maybe “himself” rather than “themselves”?
“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.” This is an interesting part to mull over, as it makes me think of several interpretations… Those of death row opening up to each other once the inevitability of death breaks them and makes them desperate? Or becoming sympathetic towards others in the same lot?
The rest of the piece before this made me think that the narrator becomes friends with others by being open to companionship and talking to them endlessly (or smth) and wearing their defensiveness down.
This part made me picture a more unwilling, desperate friendship. Even that they do not become “friends” with him until they are walking toward their execution…Not sure if that’s what you were going for.
The reveal at the end is great, I think. Felt poignant. I liked the circular structure of the beginning and end being near repetitions of themselves. The end nicely repaints everything we read up to that point.
From a character development standpoint, I think the narrator would be more gripping if his need for “friendship” was played up more. I feel like there are hints that a) he is lonely and cannot relate to anyone but the inmates, and b) he needs to provide them with empathy and comfort, to get under their skin – and they probably perceive it as creepy, at first. Since we don’t know the narrator is the executioner until the end, since we assume that he is another convict, it could make him more colorful to emphasize his motive for seeking connection.
So these were my impressions. Hope they help you brainstorm, and of course feel free to disregard anything that doesn’t match your vision. 🙂
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Wow – firstly, thank you for both reading the story and the time you spent on the response! I really appreciate the feedback 🙂
Glad the reveal worked – I was worried about giving the ending away a little too early, so I’m really happy it worked. Same with the circular start/end – I’ll admit to being pretty proud of that one.
Re the repetition, you echo (lol) what my wife (J) said when she read it – a bit overdone. J also convinced me to bring the friend in earlier (I had originally left the young man to the last few paragraphs), which I thought brought the ‘connection he sought’ more to the forefront – this agrees with your comment on playing up the need for friendship.
The other stuff you mention is great advice too – re language, pacing etc. I need to think about whether I review this story or leave it as is and apply the lessons going forward… in any case, I will make one immediate change – ‘himself’, not ‘themselves’ is definitely the right word.
Mate, really good story. Simple, and you kind-of realise what’s happening at some indeterminate point just before the reveal confirms it… a sneaking “uh oh.”
I don’t know, but I absolutely loved this. I loved how you kept the focus on the executioner while maintaining a background focus on the prisoners, then bringing in the part of the one he is to kill…how he is younger, more gentle……left me emotional. Both for him and so much so for the executioner. Excellent. I am not a professional writer, but I absolutely know what I enjoy reading, and what touches me. This was so good.
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Wow – thanks for the very kind words. I’m always thrilled with this sort of feedback, I get a real sense of achievement if a story ‘hits home’.
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YW, you asked for replies and I honestly really would have read a whole book like that 🙂
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