Copyright © 2016 by Lisa Shea / Minerva Webworks LLC
All rights reserved.
Cover design by Lisa Shea. / Book design by Lisa Shea
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
The dark, frigid cell stank of urine and bleach. Verne kept his eyes closed and tuned in his other senses as he came awake.
Verne had long since gotten used to the thinness of the musty mattress beneath his heavy body. The ten long years in Unit III had made the previous twenty-five years of his life fade into a hazy dream. His childhood and young adult years “outside” sometimes seemed no more real than those black and white movies they sometimes played in the day room. But six days ago he had been moved to Death Watch. He had been taken from the other prisoners on the row – well, in the square, really – and brought to this tiny cave of an enclosure.
Four tiny cells.
One small day room.
And right next door, the chamber.
Verne stretched his arms and legs straight in the darkness. Corpse pose, his momma had always called it. Which was funny, because when she became a corpse she wasn’t all straight and neat. She was a mangled heap, arms and legs turned every which way, and out of her mouth had come that horrible rasping … rasping …
The lights switched on, and Verne blinked his eyes against them. The thought came to him – this was the last time he was going to wake up. The last time he’d see the light arrive. Because at midnight tonight they were going to strap him to a gurney. And at two a.m. … well, that was the end, wasn’t it?
The light would go out forever.
He rotated to sitting, planting his large feet firmly on the floor. It was chill beneath him. The whole place gnawed his fingers and toes. Outside the world might be lighting Christmas trees and singing songs. He’d seen that in a movie. But in here there was just the metal toilet, metal sink, and metal desktop screwed into the wall. And the cold that crawled insistently beneath his skin and made his joints moan.
He made use of the metal toilet, washed his hands, put on his shoes, and then sat back down on his bunk. Back in Unit III he’d never liked the day room and even though he was the only inmate here in Death Watch, the resistance to leaving his cell lingered. He preferred to be alone. After all, he’d been alone those first twenty-five years, except the moments his momma would come down to bring him food. His pappa left when he was five. Verne had a blurry memory of a man in a slicker, hunched against a pounding rainstorm, dragging a beat-up black suitcase out to a car. A red-headed woman helped him jam it into the black seat. And then they were gone.
He was left alone.
A few days later his mom had moved his mattress down into a corner of the basement. Said she wanted to do some fixing-up upstairs. It would just be for a few days. As weeks passed she would say something about a delay from this or a change to that. And then the reasons stopped coming. The basement was simply where he lived. It had the dingy bathroom in the corner with the large spider, the shelf of moldy books, and him.
A noise from the day room, and the burly, bald black guard with the scar over one eye came in carrying a tray. “Breakfast, Verne.”
Verne nodded and made his way out to the stainless steel table with its attached seat. At least he didn’t have to make the daily walks into the general mess hall any more. The death row inmates had been taken as a group, under guard, and the rest of the prisoners seemed to eye them with a mixture of curiosity and fear. It was as if an invisible wall separated his group at all times. They moved together. Sat together. And when the meal was over, the guards escorted them back into their own isolated block.
Here, on Death Watch, it was almost as if he were in the sanctuary of his basement again. His food was being brought to him. Eggs, scrambled with a bit of gummy texture. The sausage’s aroma set his stomach grumbling. He dove into the food and finished it off as quickly as he could. His mother would have been tapping her narrow foot, her fingers clenching and unclenching waiting for him to be done. Her dark eyes would watch for the very moment of the last fork-ful and then grab the plate away. Her short, curly hair would bounce as she turned and went back up that long flight of stairs into the light.
The guard left with the plate, Verne returned to his bunk, and he sat.
Out of habit, he held his hands out before him, fingers splayed. He slowly folded down the left pinkie. “One.” The left ring-finger. “Two.” And so it went until he counted that last right pinkie. “Ten.”
A smile drew to his lips. Ten. It always made him happy to reach that count.
He started again, this time from the right. It had taken him a while to figure out how to count in this direction, but he’d finally done it. Momma had said he couldn’t learn anything – it’s why she didn’t bother sending him to school – so he held this feat within him with a measure of pride.
See, he could too learn something.
He frowned as he counted again, left to right. During the trial there had been a lot of confusing talk. Talk about disabilities. Which didn’t make sense to him, because he was as strong as an ox. He was big, too, a fact he realized when the police took him to their station and he saw he was rounder and taller than most of them. But disabled meant something didn’t work right. And his hands and feet worked just fine. In fact, that lawyer had gone on and on about it. How he was stronger than his momma. How when they were at the top of those stairs, her holding his young niece, she wouldn’t have had a chance.
He frowned and looked at his fingers. He had lost track. He’d have to start again.
A knot twisted in his stomach as he began again at “One.” When he died, would he be seeing his mother again soon? And the niece? The chaplain had tried to talk to Verne about Heaven and Hell a number of times, but Verne just didn’t get it. People did what they did. His momma wasn’t bad or good for having Verne sleep in the basement. It’s just where he slept. And Verne didn’t think he was bad or good either. He was just Verne. Who else could he be?
He wondered what had happened to his bathroom spider since he had been taken away. Was someone else living in the house now? Was someone else sleeping on his mattress in the basement corner? He hoped they hadn’t disturbed the spider. The spider had been his friend. A companion. Like Charlotte in that book he’d read. A lot of the words in that story were complicated for him, but he’d figured out the gist of the story. And when Charlotte had died, he’d cried.
The same burly black guard brought lunch – a hamburger on a thin bun and a pile of french fries. Verne shoveled them into his mouth as quickly as he could, downing a large glass of water afterward. He returned to his cot.
He resumed his count.
The feeling of dread grew within him, gnawing at his bones. There had been the faintest of hopes that his father would come see him on this last day. The Warden had said that visitors would be allowed until 11pm. But nobody had ever come to visit him in all the ten years he had been at Central Prison. Not his father, who had watched him in the courtroom with those cold, dark eyes. Not his aunt, so alike to his momma, though his aunt’s hair was longer and a deep shade of black where his momma had been brown in short, tight curls.
His aunt had been angry during the trial. She sat in the high-box and told everyone that Verne was a monster. A dangerous menace that had to be put down like a rabid dog. Verne had been hopeful, then. He wanted to be put back down into the basement. That’s where he belonged. Every day that he was away made him nervous. Unsettled. The jail cell was too noisy. There were the footsteps of the other prisoners. The rattling. The groans.
But they hadn’t put him down. He had been found guilty – but they’d sent him to Unit III instead. Maybe it was like Momma said. Things had to be fixed up before he could be returned home. Changed around a bit. Soon.
And then, over the ten long years, the longing for home faded. He drew in on himself.
Verne blinked. The Warden was coming into the day room with a silver tray. On it was fried green tomatoes with pimento cheese which made his mouth water. A pile of hushpuppies sat alongside..
Verne’s eyes welled as he stood and walked to join the Warden. He remembered that dish. It was what his momma made him every birthday. It was the one day she’d drag over a chair and sit across from him as he ate at the dingy card table. She’d just look at him, her shoulders slumped, and say, “That stupid pappa of yours, all he cared about when you was born was ten fingers and toes. That was it. And look at what we got.”
Verne smiled at the thought and put his hands out before him. He counted to be sure. “One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten.”
Satisfaction pushed away at the gnawing tension, at least for the moment. He sat opposite the warden.
It went against every instinct in Verne’s body, but he forced himself to go slow. To look at that first forkful before placing it on his tongue. To savor it. This was to be his last birthday dinner ever. His last anything ever. He took the second bite. It was even more delicious than the first.
The warden, gray-haired and crease-faced, simply watched as Verne ate. He seemed sort of sad. Or maybe resigned. It was hard to tell.
Verne paid attention to each bite which passed his lips, one by one, breath by breath, until the very last one was gone.
It was done.
The warden nodded and lifted the tray. He went out through the door. That was the door Verne had entered a week ago and would only leave once again. At two a.m. When it was time for the last step.
Verne returned to his bed. Sat down.
The tension coiled and twisted, like an ebony snake slithering in the shadows waiting for its chance. Verne had read about snakes in one of his books. He often imagined that there was a snake in the basement with him. Talking to him. Listening.
The clock in the day room clicked off each second and no visitors came. No father. No aunt. He wondered if they’d forgotten about him since the trial. Maybe his father lived in the house now. It had been his, after all. Where he’d grown up. Verne’s initial bedroom had been his father’s. It’s why his mother had needed to change things, once his father had left them. She wanted to exorcise his demons, she’d said.
Verne guessed that that had taken a long time. Because even by that fateful day at the stairs, she hadn’t finished. And he’d heard a lot of moaning and groaning at night over the years. Sometimes it seemed as if there were multiple people with her up there. The demons were rough. He’d silently encouraged her to put up a good fight. To make thing safe again, so he could come back up to her.
The warden was walking into Verne’s cell with the burly guard and a thigh-high rolling metal bed. Verne had paid attention during the practice run a few days earlier and he was no dummy. He knew what to do. He hefted his bulk onto the bed and it groaned beneath his weight. The guard strapped down his arms and legs. A sheet was laid over Verne’s body. A thin man in a doctor’s outfit examined Verne’s right wrist and then brought over some equipment. A tube was attached to Verne’s wrist. A second tube was then connected to Verne’s left wrist. A metal disk was taped in place on his chest, with a wire leading from it.
Verne’s heart hammered against his ribs and his mouth went dry. The tubes were for the drugs. They were how the final death-poisons would be put into his body. There was no turning back now. As if there had been for the past week. Or the past ten years. Or the past thirty-five. But somehow seeing those plastic tubes stuck into his arms made it all quite real.
The Chaplain appeared in the doorway and the other three men left, retreating to the day room. The Chaplain was young – younger than Verne – and he had a shock of blond hair along with a sprinkle of pale freckles on his nose. His gaze was shadowed. He said, “Verne, this is the last time we will talk. For the health of your soul, I need for you to repent. So you can go to Heaven with a clear conscience.”
Verne could feel the slickness of sweat on his brow but he could no longer lift his arm to wipe at it. “But I do what I do,” he insisted. “How could I not do what I did?”
The Chaplain gripped Verne’s sausage fingers in his own thin ones. “But you can feel sorry,” he murmured. “What you did to your momma and to that sweet innocent niece of yours. Confess what you did.”
Verne’s stomach twisted inside-out and he couldn’t breathe.
His mother laid down the rules. There were many. Shower every third day, only between noon and one p.m. Never make any noise after six p.m.. Keep the room clean.
But there was one rule that took power over all others. The rule she made him recite before every meal. He had to state it before she laid down the plate. Before he fought off his starvation for a few hours more.
Never speak to any person about what happens in our house.
That was it. There was no wiggle-room. No excuses. His mother had stared at him with such ferocity, each time he had recited his pledge, that Verne was sure that the penalty would not just be death. No, if he somehow violated that rule he would be subject to the worst torture she could think up.
And he had a sense that she could think up quite a lot.
He pressed his lips together and shook his head, the fear pounding higher into his throat. He could not speak of it. Would not speak of that day, no matter what was to come.
The Chaplain sighed and looked down. He pulled his fingers from Verne’s and stood. “Good bye, Verne.” He turned and left the cell.
Verne had a wild urge to call him back, to plead for … for what? Verne didn’t even know. But his throat stayed tight and the Chaplain vanished around the corner of the doorway.
A movement, and the warden was back again by his side. This time he had a notepad in his hand along with an elegant gold pen. “It is time for your final statement, Verne. Have you given thought to what you want to say? About what words you will leave for the world to remember you by?”
The warden’s gray eyes looked almost black in the shadows. They took on the hardness of his mother’s, when she was angrier than usual with him.
Verne cringed back.
The warden tapped his gold pen against the paper. “Something, surely. Maybe to give your father and aunt some peace.”
He’d felt a moment of peace, once.
It’d been after 6pm – quiet time – and he was reading his favorite book in the chair by the foot of the stairs. Charlotte’s babies were sailing, sailing, and Verne’s heart had lifted with joy. No matter how many times he read the book, he was always filled with a golden light when he imagined the innocent babies drifting high above the Earth. Roaming free to find their true home.
There’d been a noise at the top of the stairs.
He looked up in confusion. Momma never came downstairs after supper was served. He wouldn’t see her again until breakfast the following morning.
But the knob was turning. Slowly. Deliberately.
He put the book down and stood, going to the foot of the stairs. He stared at the knob as if it were a dangerous but fascinating snake. He could not look away.
The door pushed open.
A golden light flooded down the stairs. The sound of bright laughter came from the left, and Verne could recognize his mother’s voice in the mix.
An angel stared at him, her orange-red curls in flaming glory around her beautiful face. Her eyes were round and large. She wore a white dress with a black bow around her waist.
She stared at Verne in wonder.
Verne knew he should never touch the stairs. Never even think about climbing them. And somehow he found his feet on the first … the second … drawn by the holy power of the angel.
She had come for him at last. His guardian angel. She was going to do the final touches on the house – whatever last exorcising of demons his momma needed – and at last they’d be a family again. They’d be whole.
Tears ran down his face as he moved closer to her. Her beauty was beyond this world. He had never seen anything like her.
Blackness blotted out the golden light.
His mother’s thin frame loomed over the angel like a roiling thunder. She hissed in fury at Verne, “Not yet, you imbecile! I’m not ready!”
She swooped her arms to grab up the angel.
Verne reached out in desperation -
The angel twisted, lifted -
The angel was in flight. Flying higher, higher, like the baby spiders in the story, starting their incredible journeys. And his mother was flying, too, her face wholly blank as if she could not quite understand what was going on.
A howl – a soul-shattering howl that drove through his heart as he turned and watched -
The concrete floor met the two bodies with unmovable finality. Their limbs twisted and poked, angled and bent. Blood spurted and seeped through holes and rents. The angel’s mouth was open, wide like her eyes. She said nothing. But his mother rasped … rasped …
The warden gave Verne’s arm a shake, drawing him back to the present. “You really should say something,” he instructed. “This is your last chance to be heard. To explain why you threw your mother and niece down those stairs.”
Tension wound Verne into a coiled snake, ready to strike in self-preservation. He burst out in desperation, “But I -”
His mouth snapped shut in horror.
He’d done it.
He’d started to speak of something which had happened in the house. His mother’s number one rule. He had broken it.
And now he would be made to pay for it.
A cold sweat broke out, and he could feel the streams of moisture beneath his arms. He clamped his lips tight.
The warden shrugged, clicked off his pen, and nodded to the guard.
They began rolling him toward the door.
Verne could barely breathe. His back was soaked and salt stung at his eyes. He had only spoken two words. Would that be enough to unleash his mother’s fury on him? Just two words?
He knew it would be more than enough.
The gurney moved into a small gray room with a window on one side and a tied-back curtain at its middle. The metal chairs on the other side of the window were all empty. Behind them hung a clock. It was precisely two a.m.
He was positioned before the window, the tubes were run to the other side of the room, and then the curtain was pulled shut. It created a tiny cell in front of the window where only he could be seen by the watchers. The doctors on the back side of the curtain would remain anonymous. They could administer the drugs and monitor his heartbeat all from the safety of that shield. They would not actually see him die.
But those in the viewing chamber would.
There was a noise, and people began filing into the room. There was a man with a notepad in his hands who Verne did not recognize. And then …
Verne strained against the bonds.
His poppa had come for him.
Somehow, against all odds, his poppa had found a way. Poppa would tell the warden there’d been a mistake. He would get this process to stop, and take Verne home, home, maybe to his basement, or maybe even to his proper bedroom, now that it had been painted and fixed up and -
A woman came in behind his poppa.
Verne’s eyes had trouble resolving what he saw. It looked like his aunt, from those weeks he’d seen her at the trial. That same hate-filled venom poured from her gaze. But her hair was no longer dark black. It was glowing red-orange. Orange like the angel who had come to see him on the stairs. Orange like the lady in the pouring rain who had taken his poppa away.
Her hands twined into his poppa’s, and they sat down side by side. They both wore two-part pendants made up of a heart alongside a slim cylinder.
Verne’s heart was nearly hammering through his ribs now, and he couldn’t swallow. He tried to draw breath to call to his poppa but his throat closed up tight. He strained against the bonds -
His wrists tingled.
A strange lethargy crept through his body, like a panther stalking its prey in the jungle. Black, silent, unseen, but soon every part of Verne’s body felt enormously heavy. It was as if he’d gained two hundred pounds in the space of a breath. His eyes remained fixed on the couple before him. His head weighed more than the entire house and he could no longer imagine moving it.
His heart still thundered, panicked, insistent, and sweat flowed from every pore. But he could not -
A second wave moved through him. This was like ice. Chill. Insistent. Every muscle, every joint, locked into place exactly where it was. The gaze of his eyes at his poppa and aunt. His body splayed out in corpse pose. He tried to bend his left pinkie to count, one. But he couldn’t. And if he couldn’t count one, how could he count two? Or three? How could he count to ten?
Panic swept over him and tears began pouring from his eyes. His aunt’s gaze flashed with fierce energy and she clutched his poppa’s hand even tighter. Verne wanted to yell, I’m here! I’m here! Come save me! But nothing came out. The room was the ticking of the clock; the silent murmur of the men behind the curtain. The flowing … the flowing …
An army of metallic beetles with corkscrews burrowed into each wrist, the razor-sharp edges turning, slicing, and Verne arched back in agonizing pain – but he didn’t. His body remained perfectly motionless as he screamed … screamed … his eyes straining to bulge out in excruciating horror. The invasion forked, spread, and the insane hacking delved deeper into him, pulling out his shoulder joints, his brain, and his heart – his heart -
The beetles were flaying him alive, pulling his heart in half, a tug-of-war which rolled him back with its savagery. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t count fingers or toes or heartbeats. The searing torture brought every beat into full view, as the muscle strained to close again. To perform its most vital function in a crimson-streamed world of staggering intensity.
His aunt’s face blurred, twisted, and for a moment it was the angel before him. The angel who had promised him escape. Who had offered up hope that everything he had dreamed of – everything he had hoped for – was just within his grasp.
And then his aunt’s face lit with contorted satisfaction, her eyes shining.
Time lost all meaning. The world seared with volcanic heat. It shredded flesh from limb. The clock’s ticks scratched at his ears and the light blinded his unblinking eyes. And yet despite his desperate prayers the heart beat … beat … beat …
His fingers were ripped away, one by one, and slashed into ribbons by the beetles. His kneecaps, his elbows. The inside of his nose. The depths of his eyes. His teeth were drilled into one by one.
And yet he could still see the clock, warped and blurry as it was now. It was 2:30a.m. 3a.m. And still his father and aunt watched … fixated … not turning away …
Verne’s head exploded and his brains rained down, falling in broken splotches onto the cold floor. His ears shattered with the endless shrieking of his own unending pain. But despite everything his senses were screaming to him, the reflection in the window showed him his body lying motionless beneath the sheet.
Corpse pose. At rest.
Verne’s thoughts struggled to chain together. “Kill me,” he pleaded. “Kill me. Kill me kill me kill me kill me kill me -”
The clock clicked to 4am.
Something changed in his aunt’s gaze. Her shoulders eased back. She leaned against Verne’s poppa.
She closed her eyes.
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Be the change you wish to see in the world.
Verne's Momma had one rule which could never be broken. He could not reveal to any outsider what went on within their house. Verne knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that to violate that rule was to bring unholy tortures down onto his head. And so not a word passed his lips. Not during the twenty-five years he lived in the dank basement, curled up on the thin mattress. Not during the ten long years of his prison sentence. Until he made the mistake ... * * * Death Watch delves into the depths of horror which exist in our society. Despite our modern world's veneer of civilization, there are far too many who fall through the cracks. Who are abandoned to a darker world. A portion of all proceeds from this series benefit battered women's shelters.