I’ve been meaning to tackle my backlog of short stories for a LONG time, and I’m finally doing it. You’ve probably noticed from the number I’ve posted here the past few weeks.
I’ve just finished two brand new short stories- The Last Supper and Life Without. These used to be ONE short story, however in working on them this past week I’ve decided to split them in two. I love the result, and I hope you do too.
The Last Supper
A Short Story by Kate Kelsen
Copyright © 2019. All Rights Reserved
“One Cheeseburger, a side of fries, onion rings, apple pie and a soda.”
The Chief Steward’s voice wavered as she read out the order. She looked up, blinking back tears.
“This is the last thing I will ever do for you, Anthony. Except pray for you, and I will be praying.”
Anthony had not anticipated the profound emotional effect the experience of had had on her. She had served his meals to him for the past twenty years, and in the face of certain death, it was clear she did not think he was undeserving of her mercy. Perhaps it was the ownership of his wrongdoing that had set him apart from the others.
His final meal carried a morbid significance, but he was not compelled to treat it as ceremonial. He had almost declined it altogether, but had eventually reconsidered, deciding to dedicate his choice of food to his former employer in an act of commemoration.
The Chief Steward placed the food down in front of Anthony on the table that had been set up in his cell. This was the last food he would ever eat. He wrapped his hands around the burger and lifted it to his mouth. This was run-of-the-mill fast food, the kind he had eaten many times throughout his life. Never before had he appreciated the tastes as he did now. He observed everything: the sugary dryness of the bun, the tang of the mustard and ketchup, the bitterness of the pickles, the plastic creaminess of the cheese, and the fatty, gristly texture of the beef patty. Next were the fries; limp, slim and salty, they were hopelessly addictive. The battery crunch of the onion rings revealed a slippery centre. All too soon, it was all gone.
The apple pie signified the grand finale of a lifetime of food consumption. Sweet, crunchy pastry with soft apple pieces inside. He washed it all down with the last mouthful of soda, and that was it. He was one step closer to death.
Forty-eight hours had whittled down to twenty four in the last two days he had been spent under Death Watch. There was always a chance, but his prayers felt empty and useless. He wondered if out of nowhere he would be overwhelmed by a sense of helpless panic. Yet as the time mercilessly slipped away, it was not fear that he felt, but the greatest sense of peace he had ever experienced.
He had found his peace long ago in the honesty of owning his guilt. During his incarceration he had made it known to the people that mattered that he took very seriously the deep harm he had caused. He had made the choice to walk into the restaurant with a pistol and shoot the manager. He had been handed own the death sentence, and his appeal to the State Supreme Court had been denied, not once but twice. Two decades had been spent waiting and hoping for the best possible outcome. His lawyer had worked around the clock, doing everything he could, but in the end it had all come to nothing. It was a great defeat, and it was almost too devastating to think about, which was hard to do when all Anthony had was time alone with his thoughts.
Anthony had thought a lot about what awaited him after death. It was a mysterious trap; from all the theories about it, he could never really know for sure what awaited him on the other side of death. He had already spent the last twenty years in Hell. In solitary confinement, he was woken at 3am, and his life had revolved around meals, and inspections every two hours. He had spent twenty-three hours a day in lockdown, and was alone for all twenty-four. Contact with other death row prisoners was not allowed. He could have no physical contact with his family, separated from them during visits by bullet-proof Perspex glass. He could have no personal belongings or photos on the wall of his cell. After he was executed, he would be buried in an unmarked grave. His body would be nothing more than worm food, but what about his soul? Would it go further, beyond the grave to the centre of the earth, damned forever?
The door to his cell opened, and two guards appeared. He stood up and they took his arms, marching him to another room with a telephone. He sat down and picked up the receiver, and heard a familiar voice on the other end.
“The Board of Pardons has commuted the death sentence,” said his lawyer. “It has been changed to life without the possibility of parole.”
The clock on the wall read 5pm. Two hours shy of the ultimate punishment.
“No reason was given for the decision on the ruling.”
Frozen with sombre shock, Anthony said nothing, did nothing. Why, after all his prior attempts, had this eleventh-hour clemency been granted? Twenty years of demonstrating remorse had not been enough to save his life. Why now?
He hung up the phone, and the guards took him back to his cell. There he waited. In the wake of his salvation, Anthony didn’t feel like he could let himself believe it. At any minute, he expected the guards to come for him and take him to the execution chamber. Twenty-four hours passed, and then forty-eight. Eventually the guards did come for him again. He was transported to a different part of the prison, to a cell not much different at all to the one in which he had spent the last two decades.
A Styrofoam plate of pork chops and vegetables came through the food slot in the solid steel door. The meat was processed and the vegetables were starchy, but as uninspiring it was, every meal hereon in would be significant for Anthony, for until very recently, he’d thought he’d eaten his last.
A Short Story by Kate Kelsen
Copyright © 2019. All Rights Reserved
Anthony didn’t know what he had expected when his death sentence had been commuted to life without parole. His situation was unique, but it was not the only time it had ever happened. For security purposes, he had been classified as a ‘special circumstances inmate’, the highest possible classification. He had been transferred to solitary confinement in Maximum Security.
In the twenty years he had spent on death row, Anthony had cherished time. Now that his death sentence had been commuted and changed to life without parole, time was all he had. Death had been removed from the equation, and all that was left was life.
The time was torturously drawn out. After lunch, he usually tried to lose an hour with an afternoon nap. He slept a lot- it was a good way to pass the time. In the outside world, time was so precious, but in prison it was empty and useless.
There were six other inmates on special circumstance status. He had become accustomed to the often aggressive ranting, the nightmarish ravings of mentally unstable patients troubling him deeply. The disembodied and idiotic chatter of the other inmates echoed along the corridor. Some men spent several hours rambling about cars, politics, sports, sex. Just about any useless, menial subject they could think of, anything to avoid boredom. And this was how Anthony would live out his days.
Anthony stirred awake when two guards came to his cell and escorted him to the Unit Manager’s office.
“Anthony, take a seat,” said Steven, gesturing to the empty chair opposite his desk.
“So it has been a few months since you came to us,” Steven continued. “How are you finding it?”
“It’s okay. Not that different to Death Row, to be honest, except there’s no death anymore.”
Steven nodded, interlocking his fingers.
“Anthony, I’ve brought you here today because to discuss the possibility of a mediation session with the family of John Reilly. At the request of the family.”
Anthony said nothing.
“The meeting would be facilitated by me and other counselling staff. John’s widow and daughter would speak, and then you would be allowed to respond. The meeting would be closely monitored, and you would have support there too.”
Steven paused thoughtfully.
“You’ve always been very forthcoming about your remorse over what you had done. And I believe that if you had the opportunity to say you were sorry to them directly, you would.”
It was true that throughout his trials and appeals Anthony had expressed his remorse, yet he had never imagined he would have the opportunity to face the family directly.
“Can I think about it?”
“Sure. When you’ve decided, I’ll be here.”
Anthony was now fifty-five years of age. He had been thirty-five at the time of the killing, with no prior criminal record. An upstanding member of his community, he had gone to great lengths to hide his secret. His addiction had started out small, but after a time it had consumed him. His every thought and action had revolved around obtaining his next hit of crack cocaine.
Despite all of his remorse in the courtroom, Anthony knew that he no longer had a welcome place in society in the court of public opinion. The people wanted him dead and buried in an unmarked grave. It was darkly confronting to be aware of the general hatred held toward him by the community that once held him in high regard. Now, someone did care that he was alive, but not because they wanted him to be.
Showered and clean-shaven, Anthony buttoned his shirt, straightened his collar. In a few hours he would meet the widow and daughter of his victim. It was an opportunity to understand the crime he had committed from their perspective. To give them closure. It was bound to be an emotional and tense interaction, and if they asked him ‘why’, he still wasn’t sure what he would say. Even after twenty years of thinking about it, he still could not fathom a satisfactory answer, and feared they would be disappointed. But he could only give them the answers he had, even if they were no answers at all. It was up to them what they did with those answers.
When the time came, Steven and two guards escorted Anthony from his cell. The nerves were nowhere near as intense as when he had been counting the hours in the Death House to his execution. Nonetheless, they were there.
They arrived at the visiting area. On the other side of the Perspex glass stood a number of men in suits who Anthony had never seen before. Mrs. Reilly and her daughter sat ready at the phone. Anthony sat opposite them and picked up the receiver.
“I’m kind of nervous right now,” she confessed with a nervous laugh.
Anthony was surprised by her ability to laugh, even nervously, and for a moment the tense atmosphere felt slightly more relaxed. The elderly woman unfolded a piece of paper, sliding her glasses onto her nose.
“Mr. Miller, I am sitting here writing this letter, trying to put into words how I am feeling. I would like to thank you for agreeing to this mediation session with myself and my daughter Louise.”
Mrs. Reilly sighed shakily.
“My family and I were too upset to address the board at the hearing earlier this year. Coming here today was incredibly difficult, knowing that I would be sitting opposite from the person who took my husband’s life. But I felt compelled to come here today.”
As she read on, Mrs. Reilly’s initially nervous demeanour became more composed.
“Mr. Miller, I don’t think you could ever comprehend the damage you did that night. I want you to know the depth of our pain. The pain of a wife, and the pain of a daughter, cannot be expressed in words. It is like our hearts have been ripped from our bodies. After twenty years, my heart is still breaking inside.”
She reached over and took her daughter’s hand.
“A few months ago I would not have had the strength to do what we are doing today. We had been fighting a battle against each other with conflicting interests for two decades; you wanted to stay alive, but I wanted you dead. And you won. But then my heartbreak turned to determination, and I felt I had to see you. You had to hear my voice and what I had to say. My family had been awaiting your punishment for twenty years. For you to suffer the same death sentence you gave my husband that day. We got so close to seeing that justice, and then it was cruelly taken away from us. That is why I was compelled to meet with you. I am sure you are happy for your success, but justice was not done for us.”
Mrs. Reilly looked up from her piece of paper.
“I cannot say I have forgiven you or your actions, Mr. Miller. I have not yet found the strength to separate you from what you did. I just can’t do it that way. I have found just enough peace in all this to help me survive day to day, and that is all.”
Mrs. Reilly turned to her daughter, who consoled her as they cried together. Anthony waited patiently for a sign that they were ready to hear his response. Eventually they composed themselves, and he proceeded.
“Mrs. Reilly, all I can offer you is the truth about that day. It is by no means an excuse for my actions, but I just want to give you the facts. At the time, I was addicted to crack cocaine, and my addiction was out of control. It had caused me to lose my job. I was desperate, but that still does not excuse killing a person.”
Despite his efforts to the contrary, Anthony could not help but feel a shameful emptiness in his words. It had sounded better when he had written it, but now as he read it aloud, it sounded pathetic. After all this time, how could he have so little to say? How could all the suffering he had caused these people be summed up in any number of words?
“I don’t know what, if any, difference it will make to you, but during my time in prison I have successfully overcome my drug addiction. I have spent my time in here counselling other inmates with drug habits. I will never leave prison, but some of those men will, and I feel it is my obligation to help in any way I can to return them to society as better people. I have made my peace with what I’ve done by owning up to it in every way. It doesn’t make me feel any less deserving of my punishment, but if it means you and family could feel the peace that I have felt for my accountability, I can at least give you that.”
Anthony looked up from his paper. Mrs. Reilly was looking directly at him.
“How does it feel to take another person’s life?” she asked quietly. “Did you think about what you had done? Did you think about your own family?”
“I didn’t think about it.”
Mrs. Reilly shook her head.
“I know that saying sorry means nothing. I wish I could take it all back.”
“We should have had had justice, but in the end, it was you who got that. It is you, a murderer, who still has his life. My husband would have been a grandfather by now. But he’s dead.”
“Mrs. Reilly, if there is anything I wish I could take back besides your husband’s murder; it is how hard I fought to stay alive. Since the clemency, I’ve spent the last few months in Solitary Confinement in Maximum Security, and I tell you, the only difference from Death Row and Solitary is that death has been removed from the equation. The conditions are exactly the same. I live alone in a twelve-by-seven foot cell, where I spend most of the time alone. I’m not allowed to mingle with lower security inmates. I am allowed to see my family, but they are no-contact visits through bullet proof plexi-glass. You may think that I’m the one that has gotten justice, but it couldn’t be less true. I might as well be dead, and you never know, you might just get your wish.”
Thanks For Reading!