A golden eclipse was emblazoned upon the back of his eyelids. The crisp, morning light, an event horizon on the surface of his vision. He found it so peaceful to lie here; watching the fire dance on the skin of his eyes, to see the distortion such a simple veneer could have on life. Everything was different depending on perspective. A certain paradigm is an important thing; it discerns life or death, true or false, love or hate. A simple problem can be interpreted, and solved, in several different ways. Untying the Gordian Knot is either a complex puzzle or a simple chopping manoeuvre.
John Tullock admired and cherished this, as it meant in someone else's view; he was an innocent man, even if he didn't believe it himself. Regardless of his own beliefs, twenty of his peers had agreed to this, and according to the Sixth Amendment, he had enjoyed the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district. The trial had been speedy, certainly. His sentence however, was not. Fifteen years of his life had been spent inside this dingy, disgusting state-funded cell. The majority of his time had been allocated to gazing at the lights behind his eyes, quiet as a door mouse, waiting for his day of reckoning, as it were.
Although one amendment had been adhered to, this was certainly, if not unusual, cruel punishment. Fifteen years of his life had been spent waiting and jumping at the steady beat of footfalls, counting their way down the aisle his ten-by-fifteen foot home was adjacent to. On many an occasion, the footfalls had come for his neighbours, and they had been dragged without dignity, kicking and screaming, to the polished wood of the fourth horseman. Their screams had replicated their lives: short and violent. John did not pity these men because of their screams, he despised them. Any man who was willing to leave this world as he had entered it obviously hadn't learned anything in the period of time between. In his view, any man who regretted his death that bitterly hadn't deserved their life. A man should go to the chair regretting nothing but the actions that brought him there.
As a boy, his father had taught him the meaning of death. He'd been taken hunting in Maine, at February time. At the age of fourteen, he'd been forced to shoot, skin, prepare and eat his first deer. His father had shown him how to hunt, but more importantly, he had seen the fear in the eyes of the animal before it was killed, and understood that this was the ugliest part about death. A black mark at the end of your life, such as pleading for it, marred your time in the world.
Despite the lessons he had learned from his father, John hated the man. There was a lot of hate in John's life; he acknowledged this the same way you'd acknowledge an acquaintance in the street, it kept his heart burning. The only hate he harbored that he couldn't stand was the hate for his father. He knew it was wrong, but was powerless to stop it, ironically, as most people are powerless to cease from loving their fathers. He'd found the man stone dead almost a year to the day after the deer-hunt, a bottle of whisky on the side and the blinds drawn. The stink on him in death had been the same as the one on him in life; alcohol and cigarettes. The closed blinds made the room even danker than it already was. Like an animal, he'd shut the curtains to hide himself from the world, ashamed of his dying form, curling up to die in what he believed in as peace.
He'd gone to live with his uncle at that point. The man was a better person than his father, certainly, but his ability with people was severely lacking. As such, he could not look after the child as well as he'd have hoped. John had receded into himself, in both grief and simply for the reason that he was comfortable that way. He'd helped around the house as often as possible, did his chores and his homework, but most of his time was spent in his room, writing under the skylight, either by what little it provided or the lamp on the corner of his desk.
He read, but not as often as he wrote. The only writing he enjoyed to an extent was his own, as it was the only writing that truly spoke back to him. No other author, be it a thriller writer or a romanticist, had ever been able to reflect John's view of life back to him. He didn't care much for the story, he could read anything just for the pleasure of reading, the most important thing was the paradigm. The way the characters interacted and reacted to the world around them, and the way that world contained them. No writer had ever been able to capture his world onto paper except himself. He was its only resident, and he was never looking to expand.
When he wasn't writing, he was usually thinking to himself, either lying on his bed or sitting upright in the corner. Scenarios in his head usually followed into another, and another, and he would become lost in the thread of his own thoughts, unable to trace backwards, only able to continue and discover what was around the next bend. He would fantasize about everything and anything, from exceptional grades in school to exceptional girls in the centerfolds of magazines. Fighting hundreds of anonymous of tough men to playing a gig to thousands of anonymous fans, the situations could change quickly, yet each was so detailed that the life in his head became more enjoyable than the outside world. In his head, he could be anyone he wanted to be and do anything he wanted to do. In his head, his drunken father no longer existed, neither his absent mother.
He'd quickly become the daydreamer at the back of the class, the bespectacled boy with large hopes and low motivation. The boy whose eyes should have been on his textbook, yet instead, they were behind their lids, watching the golden colour of the sun dance its merry dance.
His single bed was rested up against the dry, plaster wall and took up most of the space inside the room. As a result, the area beneath it had become his storage area. He'd manage to acquire an old apple box from the guards who occasionally held a conversation with him, as if he were any other man. This box contained the only possessions he owned, or at least had access to. When reversed, it became a large enough surface to serve as a table, which he used to play hours of solitaire on. Even a man so obsessed in his own mind has to come out of it, and when he did, he usually played cards. The only game he ever had any time for anymore was solitaire, as it never grew old, and helped him remain calm. The dog-eared pack of cards was a useful substitute for conversation, certainly, but when the need arose, John still had a few paperbacks resting under his bed. There were three books in his entire collection. One was a tatty western that he would never have finished if it weren't for the fact that there was simply nothing else to do. Another was an erotic novel, about a young girl seduced into a life of luxury by a dashingly handsome man on the way home from college. Its pages had been long since memorised, and as a result, the book was no longer useful to him for its original purpose, its risqué was evaporated, along with the mystery of what led behind the next page. Now he only read it as a book, nothing more. The final part of his collection was the well-used horror piece, the best novel he'd ever read. John had never gotten bored of that book, and each time he read it, he learned to appreciate it in a different way.
He'd written a similar piece himself, in 1986, back when he was in high school. It was about a serial killer, on the prowl for potential victims, and then on the run from both the law and his conscience. He'd believed in telling the story from both sides, and the perspective often changed between the victims, police and the killer himself, so much so that he'd repeated certain scenes. It was, in John's mind, the best piece of writing he'd ever produced. This made it all the worse when it was stolen from him. Most of the work had been done in lesson time, and it was taken from under his nose in the middle of a math class one day. One hundred and twenty hand written pages, of his own imagination, were taken by someone and never returned to him. Not to say that it was a secret, the basics of the story soon got out, and the stares he'd received for a long time afterwards had been disarmingly brutal. People, even teenagers, didn't appreciate someone who could sympathise with a serial killer. Neither could he, but his fellow students didn't notice that it was in fact a ploy to make the writing better, and as a result, he was avoided like the plague for almost a year afterward.
Not that he'd cared, high school, if not his entire teen years, were spent entirely alone. He'd been quite comfortable with it that way. People made friends with like-minded individuals, people who understood them. John's reckoning was that he was the only one who understood himself suitably to be trusted, and this is how it went. Besides, he had enough company in the characters he created in his writing, and the ones he encountered in books. No-one was more interesting to be with than Long John Silver, Bilbo Baggins or Captain Nemo.
But he was still human. Company was yearned for, and despite how much he ignored the need, it still became an ache in his heart. It contributed to his personality and made him reserved further, self-esteem dropped off of the scale. He found himself despicable at points of his teen years, and rarely found an excuse to drag himself out from the linen sheets and onto another day.
Now, however, he wished he'd cherished his life more. It was the final irony that he should spend his last days alone, when he so often felt comfortable without the other people who didn't share his view. Now, in his last week of life, he'd become content and accepting of his fate, but it hadn't always been that way. He'd been scared and confused, like a rabbit under the scrutiny of a pair of headlights. This, coupled with the guilt of taking her life, had made his nights sleepless and his days weary. Much of his time had been spent in silence, cursing himself. On the hour he received for exercise he would sit in the hottest part of the yard, allowing the flame of the day to lick his skin. Not much could be done to draw him from his shell, and secretly, many of the guards worried he would turn like so many others, and take his own life before he was ordered to the varnished wood of the chair.
To be truthful, John had considered it many times, and if not for his moral standing, probably would have killed himself in the time that it took to get from the man he was to the man he is. Now, he no longer feels the guilt of murder, save for a few tears of grief for the woman. She was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, as was he. John could still remember every detail of that day, from the cool breeze of the February air to the different cool of the handgun under his palm, and if anyone had asked him to recall it, he would have told it better than any prosecuting lawyer could have. It deserved to be told. The woman's memory was at stake.
The truck had been used to transport meat products before it was used to transport men. The scent of cured meats was left like a stain or a watermark in the air, and no amount of air-freshener, nor the worlds most experienced cleaner, could banish that smell. It was the vehicle's character, and was no stranger than the four wheels on its base or the doors on its side. The back had served to refrigerate, and in the last weeks of winter, was still very cold. It seemed a million miles of Goosebumps had rose from John's skin, and even in the black ensemble, complete with balaclava, he felt exposed. Worse, he felt naked.
There wasn't any backing from the task at hand now regardless. The men he shared the truck with would sooner kill him to protect their identity (and money) than let him go free with that valuable information. They were the all-time hard cases of Virginia, destined from Kindergarten to go into organised crime, and John doubted that any of them had failed to pull a trigger in the past. Nonetheless, he'd gotten himself into this mess; he had to sleep in the bed he'd made.
Performing one final check of his equipment before he stepped out into the light morning rain, a feeling of latent doom washed over him. Not an over-bearing sickening feeling, it just felt like it could be his last day today, and the thought was acknowledged, simple as that.
The First Bank of America stood before him, the great bastion of his future, majestic as ever beneath the grey, weeping sky. His feeling of doom gone, he began to get excited, giddy and nervous, like a school-boy losing his virginity. The rain was liberating, enervating. He felt ready for anything, and supposed that this was the adrenalin kicking in from what he was about to do. All inhibitions left behind in the claustrophobia of van. Nothing could go wrong.
The front of the building was glass, and as a result, a number of people had already noticed their small gathering outside. They weren't given any time to react. Eddy, the leader of this small coup, had already walked inside. He now fired two shots into the roof of the building, covering himself in a veil of plasterboard dust. His cries for everyone to hit the floor were answered before they left his lips. Everyone in this bank already knew the drill.
Eddy was followed by the rest of the gang, John pulling in the rear, threatening the pedestrians on the street until the bank was secure enough to turn his back on them. Many American's were armed, so it was wise to distrust them in a situation such as this. Within half an hour, the front of the foyer was blocked with upturned desks and filing cabinets. The plan was to keep hostages until a suitable amount of money had been accumulated, and then a take a few with them to ensure their release. The cash would go five ways, a part for each of them, to spend on whatever they liked.
John was most certainly living the American Dream, though not quite the dream envisioned by James Adams.
Sitting in the corner of the large entrance, he kept guard. The people on the floor looked like they were playing a crude game of Sleeping Lions, not one daring to move. By this point the police had arrived, and the steady drone of a loudspeaker was the white-noise of the day. Sirens played in accompaniment, but to John the world was quiet. He was watching the light play out a story behind his eyes.
When it happened, John, in his distracted state, thought it was much worse than it was. The woman had jumped up, hoping to catch the crew by surprise. As she ran towards the door, he reacted with a speed that he didn't know he was capable of. He pulled the old revolver, more of an antique than a weapon, round in an ark and fired. The 1944 issue gave a kick that dug right into his shoulder, nothing like a rifle. The force of it knocked him back off of his feet and keeled him in a circle, pushing him back into a sitting position. From here, the scene slowed down to a crawl, so much so that looking back he could almost see the bullet fly through the air. There was one sweet moment of hope when it looked as if it might pass her by. The moment was brief. The impact from close range destroyed the woman's face, disintegrating it in a way that made her seem inhuman. In a split second she'd gone, blown away like a flame in a stiff breeze. John let out a cry at the sight of it, but the room was silent by the time she landed. Her landing ended subtly. The sound of it was as quiet as a door being pulled to, yet it resonated like a church bell. It still echoes in John's ears to this day.
Alone, in a drift of staring faces, he'd gone to her, silent tears crawling down his face. Each step a tolling bell of destruction. He was no longer giddy; instead, the feeling of dread and doom haunted him like a devil playfully tapping his shoulder. He fell to his knees besides her, and saw her, really saw her, for the first time. Her face, a mess of strewn bone and muscle tissue, was negligible; it was her in her entirety that caught his attention. She was about 5'4" in height, a slender figure. Her corpse enshrouded in a pencil skirt and pinstripe blazer, covering a modest blouse. On her left hand lay a golden wedding band and a slightly more extravagant diamond ring, yet still modest like the rest of her. A bronze locket lay on her still-warm chest, with the italicised E.B its motif. Her nails varnished, not one chipped.
Then, after about five minutes of silence, John noticed her stomach. It was swollen about six inches further than it should have been for a woman of her body type, for someone as thin as her. The poor girl was pregnant, and probably only ran to try and save her unborn baby.
Her unborn baby
It was dying now, helpless and alone. He'd just committed murder, but he was still killing, even now, as he sat by his victim. Completely powerless to stop the events unfolding.
Everyone in the room was staring now, not mindful of the guns for the moment, as both criminal and victim scrutinised and judged him. Everything had stopped, and only the tick of the clock beat in the background, ceaselessly shearing time away by the second. He could no longer hear the megaphone, which meant the police outside had heard the gunshot. He was already big news, and this story would definitely be exaggerated by the press.
Not that he thought about that at the time. His head was mostly empty for the first time since he could remember as he cradled the dead woman and child in his arms and wept, like a crazed husband in a natural disaster.
Then he realised he was the natural disaster, and let her fall again, softly. Without a word he rose to his feet and headed towards the large glass double doors, peeling away stockpiled furniture as he went. Police were standing behind their cars, aiming weapons from all angles. When he finally broke through his own barricade, the scene had unfrozen; a woman screamed behind him and yet another siren droned in front. Above all of this was the constant sound of the rain, hard and unchanging in its melancholic beat. It cooled his skin, but instead of feeling liberating as it had done early, now it soaked into him, weighing him down, rusting him to the core. His movements began to get sluggish, bringing him closer to the floor with each step. It seemed to him that he would fall forever, right up till his head hit the curb and he blacked out.
Her name had been Emily Battonfield; he remembered that not because of the newspapers or the case, but because of her bronze locket that had glinted even after her eyes had lost their light. Her husband had reacted harshly, and instead of exploding violently at John, he was simply lost to the world. That had been the worst for him, having to deal with his own guilt as well as her husband's.
Her name had been famous for a while, almost as famous as his own had been, but then time had gone on and all but a few had forgotten Emily. She'd been a beautiful woman indeed, and John wished he'd known her as a person rather than a victim. He'd have loved to have a conversation with her.
Over the years he'd spent a lot of time thinking about what her life could have been if he'd never intervened, where she could have gone, what the child would have looked like. He also imagined what her life had been like; if she'd sat next to a crush in high-school or whether she studied under a favourite tree listening to the birds sing. He gave that up after a while, it just depressed him further. After all, the birds don't sing when you're six feet under the soil.
Now, he spent his days lying on his bed waiting for his letter and his fair well meal. Every now and then he would wistfully dream of escape, and each time he did he would snub it, often with an audible scoff. There was no escape for him outside of these walls anymore, even if he did manage it. He'd not been rehabilitated; this cell wasn't intended for that, it was simply a holding pen between here and Hell. Instead, he'd been desensitised. Over the course of his time, he'd heard of strange things from the guard's conversations. Cell phones, satellite TVs and computers. He'd been told of Concorde, and how it could break Mach 1. John figured if a plane could move that fast, he didn't want to be on it when it landed. Effectively, the cell had succeeded in killing him long before the chair will.
As he contemplated, he'd realised he was even dead to the few he loved. His wife, Clara, had left him ten years ago for a banker from Massachusetts, and she'd taken James, his only son, with her. The last time he'd seen Clara or his son was five years after that, when she'd come to settle the will. James had been ten, and though he knew John was his father, he didn't know him as his father. There was no love in the eyes that fell across his sight. That had hurt him the most, seeing his son feel for him the same way he'd felt for his own Dad. Clara, however, had been the bitch she'd always been, scoring points over him with a smirk at every chance she got, proving to him that he'd always been guilty in her mind. She'd used James as a weapon, not that she needed too, she could have had anything she asked for, as there was no-one else for it to go to. Share the wealth like you share the love, his mother used to say.
The only thing she'd left him with was the faded and scratched wedding band on his left hand. The only thing of value left to him, and ironically, the only thing in his life he no longer valued. The metal was a dead weight on his finger, yet he wore it as punishment, like a pious man with mild insanity might flog himself.
It caught the sunlight from his window, dull, shining behind the scratched surface. His room faced south-west, allowing natural light in only at sunset, (the only worthwhile natural light), yet giving John what he believed to be a view of the entire Deep South. This, of course, was exaggerated speculation, and he knew this, but it still kept away the home sickness. The South had been an evil place over the years, yet it still held that guiding light of home. He felt safe here, like a dog in its own back-woods.
He enjoyed his sunsets alone. The only other inmate in the block for the past two years had died six months ago; he'd suffered a heart attack. Arrhythmia had plagued him often before it, yet the guards had left him to die, claiming he was faking. When he died, it caused quite a stir in the local newspaper. Quite a few of the elderly had complained, saying he hadn't served his full sentence and never got his just desserts, as the elderly, or anyone else who hasn't been on death row before, is likely to do. Of course, there was nothing that could be done about, but they still complained none-the-less. He'd been named as the 'Two-State-Two-Timer' because he'd killed two people in Virginia and two in North Carolina. One of them was a Virginian cop, and as a result, his home state was allowed to sentence and imprison him. He'd once told John that he'd only carried on running and shooting because he'd presumed the death sentence had already been decided upon.
Only after Two-Timer's death did John find out his first victim had been shot in self defence, after a raid on his home by the local loan-sharks. The man had obviously been scared and bolted with his tail between his legs, thinking himself a criminal, just like the newspapers.
Yet the sweet elderly people had still bombarded his wife with hate mail, and a few death threats, because she'd stayed with him after he was sentenced. It had all become too much for her when a forty-five year old man was found in her back garden, bleaching her lawn. She'd moved away somewhere upstate, leaving Two-Timer to fester, alone.
Sitting on his bunk, with his upturned apple crate serving a makeshift table, John indulged in his last meal; apple pie with cream, home-cooked, not from a packet or a supermarket. The pastry was golden, the apples sour and the cream rich and thick. It was his favourite dessert, and he could vaguely remember his mother cooking it like this as a child. He savoured every bite, musing, with a soft smile on his face, that if he could go back and change it, he would have robbed a bakery instead of a bank.
On the side of his used and forlorn grey plate was an ash tray and pack of twenty Richmond's. He'd given up smoking a long time ago, but now it seemed the prospect of lung cancer wasn't that frightening. Richmond had a smooth drag, the kind he had been used to as a kid, when he was learning to smoke as much as he was learning to spit.
He had a tankard on the floor, an actual tankard. In it, filled to the brim (or at least it had been, it contents now somewhat diminished), was a foamy beer. It was a kind he had no name for, but enjoyed it all the same. This was the thing that had most pleasantly surprised him; normally a man got a piss-warm bottle of whatever was left that day.
All in all, the food and drink had been the most satisfying he'd ever had, and he'd ate till he was fit to burst. Like any old-style American man, he was sat with his belt unbuckled and the lowest two buttons of his shirt unfastened. His meal had been state funded, something not often publicised if can be helped. He cared nothing for it, let the people send their angry letters; he'd gotten the last he wanted to read.
The guards had also brought him a pen and a pile of paper, they'd known he had always loved writing, and he'd requested it to send his son a letter. On it, a brief apology had been scrawled. It had been kept brief because John knew it wasn't wanted, all he wanted to tell his kid were the facts of life. He'd told him about cars, about money, the little he knew about women, about the books he should read and the ones to avoid, what college was like. He'd let James know all the secrets of his life, from a full description of the day he murdered Emily to the first time he'd tried marijuana. He wanted him to know all of his mistakes, so he had no reason to make them himself. He might not have been able to pass on the normal lessons a father does to his child, but he intended to do a damn good job at everything else now.
The letter ended up as twenty-four pages of tall longhand. His hand-writing had deteriorated since he'd been in jailed, yet he'd made sure it was legible. Let Clara scorn him for this too, he had a feeling James might just keep this in the bottom of his drawer for a while.
Echoing footsteps broke the silence, as they did the day before, when they'd come tolling the sound of his fate. Looking to his right, he saw the polished black leather, with pants covering all but a sliver of the sock. The man had a set of iron handcuffs in his hands, and without a word, John got up and placed his hands together through the hole in the bars. His hands together and removed from the small gap, the front slid sideways on its bracket. Not a word was spoken as the warden led him down his final mile, towards his final backrest. The thought struck him as funny, and he chuckled to himself, but the feeling wasn't in him. He now understood those screamers, who begged for their lives to be spared. Yet, he was determined not to be one of them.
They walked side by side, a thin chain connecting them. As the man walked John like the dog he was perceived to be, he ground his teeth together, huffing loudly. The faded red staccato tiles felt flat and heavy under his boot heals, and the breeze rolled in through the window across his freshly shaved head. It seemed life now had more clarity, when it was needed least.
His heart fluttered in his chest when he saw the chair, positioned at the front of an almost theatrical showroom. Fingers shuddering with both fear and anxiousness, he saw the room was empty but for the prison guards and the attorney who played witness. He was grateful for this; it meant no-one had to watch his humility. Most men would have been saddened by the fact they had no loved ones to witness them leave this world. John just smiled. He was done here, and whatever lay beyond the chair was waiting for him, adventure or torture. He wasn't going to leave the earth as he was born into it, kicking and screaming.
Centre stage, he was seated with a rough shove while the Warden read his sentence. The man had a wrinkled forehead, despite his age of thirty-five. He obviously frowned a lot more than the average man. Again, John found this funny, and for a while proceedings had to be stopped for him to get the laughter out of his system. The Warden just carried on, like laughter was a common way to spend your final breath.
Cold clamps arrested his arms to the wood, legs fastened to the lower legs. They weren't necessary; John had no urge to fight. The hood was lowered over his eyes just as he caught a glimpse of what looked like a sad look in the Warden's eyes. A familiar look he'd seen in his own in a holding cell, fifteen years before. He was committing himself to something inescapable.
The boot heels drummed against the hollow floor once more, to the left of him. He heard the turbine power up, and somewhere beyond the hood, more sensed than seen, the lights flickered. One final flaky, clammy breath was stretched from his nostrils. It was time. Time to say fair well. Time to reflect. Time to die. It was time to
"Time to ride the lightning, Inmate," said a cold, Southern voice. And then everything went black.