The day of the execution was the first and only time I’d ever been in a prison. It was a lot bigger than I expected it to be. There was more light in it, too. I thought it would be a dark place with screaming inmates yelling at me as I passed through. But that’s not how it was at all. Everyone fell silent when they saw me. My path opened like Moses parting the Red Sea as people moved out of my way. There were guards on every side of me as I walked through the prison. They guided my way to the death house in the backyard. I was Death personified that day, and everyone knew it. I felt kind of powerful. I looked up and saw these big, tough men who were afraid—of me. That’s what I became that day, Death personified.
I was warned not to look anyone in the eye that didn’t work for the State. So I kept my head down. It was hard not to look up, feeling the heat of so many stares on me. But I did as I was told. I was a good citizen. This was what the State required. My name had come up, and when that happens, you do your duty. That was how my family raised me. You don’t shy away from your responsibilities. You stand up and do what needs to be done. I took no joy in being there. I knew that this was nothing to be happy about. This was just something that had to be done. And my name came up. That was all there was to it.
They marched me into the back where there was a large green lawn. Inmates were working to cut the grass, and they, too, stopped to stare at me as I passed by. The sky was unusually bright that day. It was clear and blue as far as the eye could see. And it was so quiet. Like the birds themselves knew that it was a solemn day.
I had just had my second child a few months before. I would have rather been home with her. She was such a little thing. And a really good baby. I could hand her to anyone, and she wouldn’t cry. She’d just look up at them with wonder and lean into their chests, calm and pleasant. I felt so lucky to have a good home and family. It was the State that kept us all safe from the likes of the one that I was going to put down. The way I looked at it, this was little to ask of a citizen whom the State had given so much.
The death house looked like an old chapel with its small “A” roof and peeling window wallpaper made to resemble stained glass. Inside was quiet, and people spoke in hushed tones. There were prison guards everywhere. They, like the prisoners, stilled when they saw me.
The warden was there to greet me. He was friendly enough, businesslike, though. He shook my hand and escorted me to the lunchroom where a fine meal was waiting for me. The State sent a packet to my house with a return form requesting that I list the meal I would like to be served. I must admit that they got everything just right. Funny, I can remember enjoying the meal, but I don’t remember the meal itself. It’s like I have a memory of a memory about it.
While I sat and ate, the warden and the prison guards watched. It felt strange to be the only one chewing. The warden told me to eat up since I wouldn’t be able to have anything again until the next day. It’s the way the drugs worked. If you tried to eat right after taking them, they could make you really sick to your stomach.
When I was done, the warden and I had coffee together. This time the three guards with us joined in. It felt like I had become part of a ritual of theirs. I wondered how many of these executions they had attended. I wanted to ask but didn’t. We just all sat quietly together sipping at our coffee until it was gone or got cold.
The warden took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. For a moment I thought that he was crying. When he looked up, I saw that he wasn’t. He just looked tired. He put his glasses back on and laid his palms out flat on the table.
“Did you read the packet that the State sent?” the warden asked.
Yes, I nodded.
“Good. Well, I’m going to briefly go over the basics again of what is going to happen tonight. Please stop me at any time if there is something you don’t understand or if you have a question.”
I nodded again.
“We will take a little bit of your blood now. It will be used to create the drug cocktail. It will be prepared and injected into you in about an hour. Once you receive the injection, you are the State’s agent of execution. The drug will only affect the condemned. It is coded with his DNA and yours only. You cannot harm any other person with your touch. Do you understand?”
“You have to answer verbally. It’s the law.”
I said, “Yes.”
The warden continued, “We will wait until midnight for any last-minute reprieves. If there are none, you will be escorted to the death chamber by these guards to face the condemned. Myself and the minister for the condemned will be in the room. A family member and a witness for the condemned may also be in the death chamber. He will be strapped down securely onto a gurney. You will be perfectly safe.”
I instinctively looked at the guards sitting with us. One of them lowered his head to avoid my eyes.
“He will be allowed to say his last words,” the warden said.
“Will he say anything to me?”
“The law states that a prisoner has the right to face his executioner. So he may say something to you.” The warden took off his glasses again and spoke softly. “My advice to you is to pay no attention to what he says. He doesn’t know you, and you don’t know him. Remember, you are not his judge or his jury. You didn’t determine his guilt or innocence. Others performed that function. You are his executioner. You are just performing your lawful civic duty.”
I must admit that I always just assumed that the man was guilty. I didn’t even know what he was condemned for doing. The packet from the State suggested that I not research the case, so I didn’t. Sometimes I think that was a mistake.
“When you feel ready, you are to physically touch the condemned.”
“How am I supposed to touch him?” I asked.
“Any way you see fit,” the warden said. “I’ve known some who hugged them and others who have just put a pinky finger on them. There is no right or wrong way as long as there is physical contact.”
“And that is all it takes?”
“Yes, ma’am. Death will commence at that point.”
“How long will it take?” It felt ghoulish asking, but I really wanted to know.
“Death may occur within a few moments. You are legally required to remain with the condemned until he is dead. Then you are free to go.”
• • • •
The night passed slowly. The lab technician who had mixed the drug cocktail was also the one to administer my injection. He made me roll up my sleeve and rubbed my arm with cool alcohol.
“This may sting,” he warned.
“You may get a slight fever tomorrow,” he said. “It will pass. You will be fine in a day or two.”
I unrolled my sleeve as he put his needles and things away. The area where I was injected felt sore and began to throb. My arm ached for several days after that. Such a small price to pay.
“At least you won’t ever be asked to do this again. The drug only works once. It will never work in you again. At least that’s something.”
“At least that’s something,” I repeated.
• • • •
I spent the rest of the afternoon in the lunchroom with the guards. They were good people. We talked about our families and showed each other pictures of our kids. We played cards and dominoes to while away the time. I couldn’t help constantly looking up at the clock. It seemed to be ticking slower than usual. I began to feel anxious as the sun came down. I had survived the weeks preceding that night by simply not thinking about ending a man’s life. After the sun came down, all that changed. What I was about to do was all I could think about. I was just a small-town mother of two. How had I become this agent of death?
• • • •
By 9 p.m. I was visibly shivering.
“I don’t feel well,” I said to my guards. “I want to go home.”
They just looked down. One of them said to me, “You’re just nervous. This happens to everyone.”
“But I feel sick to my stomach,” I said. It was no lie. My stomach was twisted into knots upon knots. I felt like I could throw up.
“That’s normal,” he said. “I feel like that every single time I have to do one of these.”
• • • •
By 11:30 p.m. the guards and I were all on our feet. The cordial feeling between us was gone. Now it was all business. The minutes passed like hours. Then it was finally time. The guards escorted me to the death chamber. My legs were moving on their own because I felt nothing. We entered the room, and it was like the warden said it would be. He was there standing next to a minister. And there was the condemned man. He was on a gurney, strapped down by many large belts. His arms were stretched out on two protruding extensions of the gurney, so that he looked like a man on a cross. He was just a boy, really. Maybe he was in his late twenties. There was something about his expression that reminded me of my little brother. He physically looked nothing like my brother, but the way he held his face and moved his head was just like him.
I heard a whimpering as if it were coming from an injured animal. There were two women standing behind a glass window. They were holding each other. One looked elderly; the other was young.
“Do you have any last words?” the warden asked.
The boy craned his neck to see the two women through the window.
“I love you,” he said. “I’m sorry, Momma.”
I felt my knees begin to shake. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be there. The boy looked back at me. He had soft brown eyes. He was not what I expected at all.
The warden nodded to me that it was time. My legs went completely numb. I couldn’t move. I could hardly catch my breath. My feet were like wet cement melting into the floor.
“When you’re ready,” the warden said.
Many moments went by, and I still didn’t move. I stared at the boy. My heart pounded in my chest. No one said anything. It was deathly silent. It was all up to me, and I couldn’t move.
The warden waited patiently, then he looked at his watch. I saw him wave his hand to the guards. And these men, these good men who I had spent the whole day with and shared pictures of my kids, grabbed me and forced me forward. It was then that I understood that the guards were not there just to protect me but to force me if I tried to refuse.
I fought them. I fought them hard. I waved my arms and scratched like a cat. A wild animal arrived in me that I never knew was there.
“Don’t touch me!” I screamed. And they backed away. The women behind the glass looked at me with a kind of hope and sympathy. I felt a flush of guilt and shame. I felt naked before them. I straightened out my clothes and passed my hands over my hair. Then I slowly stepped towards the boy. He looked at me with eyes that tore at my soul. I went over to him.
I said, “I’m sorry.” He nodded and swallowed.
I took his hand in mine. It was warm and soft. Then I backed away.
Minutes passed, and nothing happened. I felt a wave of relief. I had read in the packet sent to my house that sometimes the drugs didn’t take. I felt a joy then that I didn’t think could be possible. The boy smiled at me. He looked over at this mother. And she weakly waved back at him. My face was completely wet at this point. I wiped away my tears. Then the boy jerked.
He convulsed for a few moments, twisting in his restraints. Little pockets of foam appeared at the corners of his mouth. His eyes turned back so that they were all white. His body shook for a minute. He let out a deep sigh and closed his eyes. Then he moaned a little as if he was having a troubled dream. I could see his chest still moving. Then he jerked again, and he moved no more.
The warden came over and checked his pulse.
“Death occurred,” he said and looked at his watch, “at 12:27 a.m.”
I can’t explain the feeling I had then. It’s a feeling that has never left me. I felt hollowed out like a Halloween pumpkin, all carved out with nothing left inside. I had killed a man. With my own hand I killed him. I looked at his still body, and it was like there was nothing else. I couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t feel anything. The guards unstrapped him, and his slack body flopped. I looked away. I heard someone let out a loud cry. I thought it was the boy’s mother. I was surprised to find that it was me.
• • • •
I could barely walk. The guards helped me out of the building and escorted me to the parking lot. Someone called to me. I turned around. It was the boy’s mother. Her daughter was trying to hold her back. She was coming at me. The guards stood in her way.
“I want to speak to you,” she said.
I said, “It’s all right.” Inside, I felt that even if she wanted to hit me, it was all right. The guards got out of the way, and the daughter hesitantly let the old woman go. She was short, so that I had to look down to see her. She looked up at me. My legs buckled, and I found myself on my knees before her. She took my hand—the hand that had just killed her son—and she held it in hers. Her small veiny hands cradled mine.
“This was not your fault,” she said. “I will pray for you and your family.”
Then she let my hand go and turned towards her daughter. They held each other and slowly walked into the night.
• • • •
My husband once told me that all the cells in a body completely change every seven years. Well, it’s been seven years since then, and I still feel the same. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about it. I don’t talk about it with anyone. My husband knows to just leave it alone. I know I’ve been different. More quiet. I think about things more. I think about life more.
It’s a warm day today. The sky is blue as far as the eye can see. My eldest is playing in the yard with his little sister. I’ve been watching them laughing and tumbling around on the grass. They are so innocent. Their whole lives are in front of them. Their faces filled with only possibilities. His momma must have had days like this. Days when she looked out at her children, laughing and playing, and dreamed of what they might be.
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