Featured Workshop Story: "Don't Mess With Texas" by Dan Kelley
Welcome to our first edition of Featured Workshop Story, which you can learn more about here. This month's guest editor was Craig Clevenger, author of The Contortionist's Handbook and Dermaphoria. He was given three stories, by voodoo_em, Linda, and HoboWriterDK. Craig stressed that it was a very tough choice, but ultimately he went with HoboWriterDK, a.k.a. Dan Kelley. Here's what Craig had to say about Dan's story:
This one is nuts-and-bolts prose. It reads casually and effortlessly, as though heard by someone telling it over drinks (an effect heightened by the second-person POV, which normally throws me, as does the present tense); at the same time, there's nearly zero superfluous verbiage here. The exposition is devoid of any driftwood, and when the characters speak they're front and center, without any authorial intrusion. Really solid piece, this one.
Don't Mess With Texas
by Dan Kelley
Performing a proper, state-sponsored execution is very simple. After you bring the condemned into the last room he will ever see and strap him down to the table, you jab a sterilized IV into each of his arms. Sterilizing the IVs might seem pointless, as the entire goal of the evening is to kill this man, but it's very important. There are plenty of false starts in execution, with the last second appeals and all. It's vital that everything be up-to-code, on the off chance that something goes awry. You wouldn't want him to die of an infection while the execution was on hold. That sort of thing can get you sued.
Keeping track of this stuff is your job. Or, part of your job, anyway. Compared to the hours you spend watching the prisoners who are not facing imminent termination, the time you spend here is miniscule. But this is Texas, after all, and executions are a big deal. It's the first thing people ask you about.
"When's the next one?"
"What did that one do?"
"Could we bring back the chair for that one?"
"Soon," is always your answer to the first question. Again, it's Texas. The second is a bit trickier. It depends on the case and, truth be told, you prefer to know as little about the events that bring you to this room as possible. The answer to the third question is a simple, no. But you expect it might be possible if the issue were put to a popular vote.
Just once it would be nice if someone would ask you about the benefits package. It's not bad.
Once the condemned is strapped down, you go into the smaller, adjacent room. The IVs lodged in his arms are connected to tubes which snake through small holes in the wall between the the two of you. This is where you will inject the chemicals that will end his life. When the go-ahead is given, you will start with a shot of sodium thiopental. It's a standard barbiturate that should knock your patient out in just seconds. It's important to let it simmer for a bit though. If you move on before it does its thing, the whole process can get complicated.
A short while ago, you marched in the procession that lead tonight's leading man in, two in front and two behind him. You were behind. It occurred to you later that you probably should have been more worried. Although the prisoner, James, had shackles around his hands and feet, he stood half a foot taller than you and had a muscular frame. Given his situation, a desperate attempt to flee would not have seemed unreasonable. You couldn't even blame him.
James isn't someone that you would normally worry about though. He's one of those guys that nobody seems to have a problem with, until they're reminded that he was convicted of killing a cop. During his stay he rarely talked, never made trouble, and spent half his time with his nose in a Bible.
You look over at him now, strapped to the table with his eyes closed. He's sweating quite a bit. His eyes are closed and he's mouthing something. Even though he can't fold his hands together, you're certain he's praying. The condemned do that a lot.
After the sodium thiopental, the next step is a dose of pancuronium bromide, which induces total paralysis. When people think of this, they tend to imagine the body becoming as pliable as a hardcover dictionary. It's more like the opposite though—the muscles relax, to the point where they stop working. You need to be very careful with this stuff. With pancuronium bromide, if you let it go too long, it eventually causes asphyxiation. And that, of course, would be inhumane.
Years ago, this stuff became the calling-card of some serial killer. Like the state of Texas, he thought it was pretty damned useful. You try not to think about it too much though. Stories like that give you the creeps.
Once a nice, stable state of paralysis sets in, the last part is a dash of potassium chloride, which simply and cleanly stops the heart.
These are the things you think about, particularly in these moments, when everyone is just sitting around, waiting for the go-ahead. It's easier to think about the concrete details, the procedure that was laid down long before you started this job. Otherwise, you might have to think about the hazier issues. Like, for instance, is James even guilty?
Looking through the bullet-proof glass, James is still laying there, trying to get in contact with the man upstairs. The thing that catches your attention is in the other room connected to the one James is occupying, directly across from you, behind another layer of bullet-proof glass. The spectators are gathered there and only one has her glare fixed straight ahead. Not at you, but on James. It's a middle-aged brunette woman, the widow of the condemned's victim. The rest are mostly reporters. They look bored. They're all looking down, the way people do when they're staring into their phones. These guys are probably jotting notes or doodling though. Phones aren't allowed here. Every now and then one of them looks up, directly at you, hoping for some sign that you are about to get to work.
The reason for their boredom is they are waiting for you to fire those aforementioned rounds of chemicals into James' circulatory system. As so often happens, the case has been sent to a higher authority to try for a stay. James already used his court appeals, so his fate is in the hands of the governor.
The only surprising thing about this development is how long it's taking. Usually, when a case like this goes to the governor, word comes back swiftly and clearly.
No stays. Not ever. The governor is a man who has total faith in the system and he tells that to anyone who asks him. But it's been two hours.
Sitting in your little station, trying not to meet the gaze of the widow staring in your direction, you hear the door open. It's Bill, one of the other guards.
"Damn, man. By the time we get outta here the game is going to be over."
He's referring to the Longhorns who are, tragically, in Bill's view, playing a rare Thursday night game. Bill, a large man with a thick Texas accent, never misses a Longhorns game.
"Reckon he'll get a pass?" Bill asks.
You look out the window and eye the zombie-faced spectators across the way.
"No," you say.
"Better not," Bill says. "Cop killers shouldn't even get an injection. We should just fry their brains out like in the old days. Even that might be too good for 'em."
You drum your fingers on the table and look down at the chemicals still primed for the journey into James' bloodstream.
"You hear the stuff on the news about him? People think he's going to get his stay," you say.
"That's all horseshit," Bill says. "My bleeding heart sister forwarded me some e-mails and petitions about it. As if I would sign that crap. I set her straight though. Had to be nice about it, 'cause she's family and all, but she got the message."
"So you definitely think he's guilty?"
"Hell, witnesses said so, right? That's good enough for me."
Like the governor, Bill has absolute faith in the judicial system and he's a vibrant supporter of the death penalty, for all sorts of crimes. One time he suggested that some kid who rear-ended him should get the chair. You're only half-sure he was joking.
Unlike the governor, he doesn't have politics to consider. Odds are, Bill has no plans to run for president one day, and doesn't have to think about the possibility that his hard-line views could hurt him in a general election. Even if there are some lingering doubts about the credibility of James' conviction, Bill has nothing to lose by loudly calling for his execution, and questioning only whether it should be by electrocution or hanging.
It's a relief when he decides to step out and chat with the other guards.
You've read the news stories, and probably a few of the same e-mails as Bill, so you know that James' conviction was based entirely on eye-witness testimony and several witnesses even recanted after the trial.
No D.N.A. No physical evidence. No murder weapon.
What happened was, the victim had been a police officer who responded to a late night call in a bad neighborhood and was gunned down in the street. Nobody could really maintain anything other than they saw a tall black man at the scene of the crime and they were pretty sure he looked like James. You don't always need more than that to get a conviction in Texas.
But this is the stuff that you don't want to think about. You want to focus on what you know, what you can control. Your job is to administer injections of sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride, in that order. The circumstances that brought you here do not matter.
You remember another story you read about some other state, Massachusetts maybe, that started equipping stations like the one you're in with multiple IVs, so they could be injected simultaneously by more than one person. But one would only contain saline, a blank, so neither of the guys would know if they actually ended anyone's life. Like with the firing squads in old times.
Not here though. When the time comes, you will know exactly what you are doing.
Bill pops his head back in and gestures to you to follow him. You already know what's coming but you get up and head out the door anyway.
In the next room the guards are standing together in a broken circle. It's quiet, until Bill tells everyone to bow their heads. In a moment, everyone has done it and Bill begins.
"Our most magnificent and generous Heavenly Father..."
You have this thing about shutting your eyes around the other guards. You know from experience that even in a solemn moment of prayer, at least a couple of these guys might get ideas about giving you a quick nut shot. Bill started this obnoxious trend months ago and it spread like a fucking plague. So you leave your eyes open just slightly, with your head lowered.
"We ask that you oversee our duties this night," Bill continues, gesticulating enthusiastically to his mostly-blind audience.
In another life, Bill would have made a great televangelist. You wonder if he thinks about the fact that he and James are praying to the same god. And you wonder if James would be concerned to know that his prayers are being drowned out, as Bill's reaches a crescendo.
"And please take this man into your powerful arms and cast him down into his eternal judgment! Send him where he belongs, with all the worst sinners, forever burning in damnation!"
A few heads nod slightly and, when Bill wraps things up, the guards give him a hearty, Amen!
You stroll back into your little chamber and stretch a bit before returning to your seat. How long has it been now, you wonder. All you know is, you don't envy James at the moment. Even putting aside his impending execution, he's been lying there for hours, strapped down with needles lodged in his arms, just waiting to have poison channeled into his system. He can't even enjoy a good stretch.
The realization makes you think that a bit of exercise might be a good distraction. You step off to the side a bit, so you're not directly in front of the window, and start jogging in place. Running has never really been your thing though. You tire quickly and decide to try some squats.
Down, up. Down, up.
You force yourself to think about the movements as you go. Anything to keep the present drama our of your head. It would be nice if you could just have your phone. Hop on Facebook. Check Twitter to see what your friends are watching on television.
But you can't. So, instead, you start doing jumping jacks, hoping that synchronizing the movements of your arms and legs will hold your focus.
Up, down. Up, down.
It isn't long until the bad thoughts start penetrating your consciousness again though. You think, 'Thou shalt not kill' should include an asterisk.
Your arms and legs go all out of sync somewhere around the time you theorize that maybe turning the other cheek was meant to be a useful distraction, to give you an opportunity to plunge a blade into your assailant's guts.
You decide to give up on the jumping jacks, noting that your uniform has gone a few shades darker from all the sweat it's absorbed. When you sit down you realize, same story downstairs.
The phone finally rings at about quarter to twelve and the warden picks it up. Only able to see his back, you can't interpret his nodding as he receives the word. You don't have to wait long though. After a minute or so he places the receiver back on the holster, turns and looks towards you, giving a thumbs up to confirm that the operation is a go.
Your head starts to feel light as everyone takes their positions and the soon-to-be-deceased is asked if he has any last words. A tear streams down from each of his eyes and he shakes his head in the negative. The warden turns back towards you and this time, instead of a thumbs up, he twirls his finger in the air, telling you to get started.
Your hands shake as you grope around at the controls. Finding your way to the first injection, you hesitate a moment, looking out at the warden. He appears stoic, even disinterested. Then you fire the dose of sodium thiopental into James' circulatory system.
You're just doing your job, you tell yourself.
James winces a bit but continues mouthing a silent prayer. The movement of his lips slows gradually, then stops, as the barbiturate knocks him out. You fire shot number two and the pancuronium bromide flows into him.
You're just doing your job.
James is fast asleep, the heart monitor attached to him showing a slow but steady beat. The timing on the next shot is tricky but, fortunately, you notice signs of his muscles losing their tension. His arms twitch a bit and then fall flat against the table.
You're just doing your job, you tell yourself again, as you fire away on the potassium chloride.
Before long, James appears to be sleeping peacefully and his heart rate goes plunging down to zero. You lean back in the chair and close your eyes. One of the perks of doing this particular job is that you don't need to go near the corpse afterwards. Your work is finished.
You try to force a tune into your head, to drown out the sounds of the limp pile of matter that used to be James being unstrapped and plopped onto a stretcher. Every song slips away though, so you just sit quietly, waiting for the end.
Later, when you and Bill are walking to your cars, Bill turns to you and says, "We really need to start doing these earlier. If he had told us who won, it would have ruined my whole night!"
Before you started heading out, the warden told everyone that the governor had apologized for the delay. He had been watching the game and forgot all about us. Bill nearly slugged the warden when he thought there was a chance that the governor had passed along news about the game. He had it waiting for him on his DVR.
You remind Bill that the next execution is scheduled for a Tuesday evening, so missing his Longhorns won't be an issue. He opens the door to his truck and climbs in, turning to me with the door still open. With a big smile on his face he says, "Thank God for small miracles."
To leave a comment