One Second Chance
Neil swallowed a hard lump in his throat, staring through the one-way mirror at the gurney in the small room on the other side. The hard plastic chair, cold beneath his legs, remained a harsh reminder of reality.
The guard tapped the front leg of the chair with his toe, jarring Neil from his stupor to look up at him.
“Doesn’t matter if I ain’t, does it?”
“Suppose not. Want a cigarette?” The guard extended a slim white cylinder, pulling a lighter from his chest pocket.
Staring at the smoke, Neil thought about it. He’d quit the habit last year, but did it matter anymore? It was too late to die of lung cancer. But it held no lure this morning. It was just a cylinder of paper stuffed with weeds. “Naw. Let’s get this done.”
Standing, the shackles around his wrists and ankles heavy, Neil shuffled toward the door to the room.
“Sure there’s nothing you want? Last chance.”
“Can I speak to Marisa or the kids?”
The guard sighed, long and gusty. “They don’t want to talk to you.”
Neil nodded and let his head drop so his chin bumped his chest. The judge had let him write a letter to the wife of his once best friend. He’d taken a long time to write that letter, making sure the words were neat and the paper crisp. He’d gotten a single page back, angry red letters sprawled across it: HELL NO I DON’T FORGIVE YOU.
He’d gotten similar responses from Ric’s kids, now grown themselves.
The small room, the walls a dull white tile, was cold and he shivered.
“Need a sweater?” The guard paused at the door.
“Naw.” Neil just wanted this done and over. He’d been on death row for ten years and a bit. And now, these last minutes were taking forever.
A man in a lab coat entered, eyes downcast, a large metal briefcase handle grasped tight in his left hand. He threw the case on a small metal table and stood behind it, waiting, eyes fixed on the case.
Through the open door, Neil heard the shuffle of feet, and knew that the observers – including Marisa and Ric’s eldest son – were filing in to take their places in those plastic chairs. He didn’t look at the window, mirrored on this side. He couldn’t see them, and didn’t want to give them the satisfaction that he knew they were there.
Something thudded against the window, and the guard sprinted to the door, pulling it closed, but not before the shout of another guard was heard and someone was escorted out of the room.
Neil imagined it was Marisa. She blamed him for Ric’s death – for the slaughter of her innocent husband. He’d never been able to convince anyone that Ric hadn’t been so innocent. It didn’t matter no more.
“Sorry ’bout that.” The guard backed away from the door. “Your lawyer should be here, soon. He asked to be here.”
“We don’t need to wait.” He was getting anxious, bile rising up his throat, trying to choke him.
“He put in a last minute appeal.”
“It ain’t gonna get approved.” Neil had seen the papers. He knew that Marisa had been lobbying for his death, had been a vigilante in her own way. If she had a gun, she’d probably blast him away right then. Maybe that would be a better way to go – quick and violent, like Ric.
The digital clock on the wall switched a number and the man in the lab coat opened the case on the table. “Go ahead and get comfortable.”
Neil held out his wrists to the guard and the man unlocked them. When he sat on the edge of the gurney, the guard stooped to do the same at his ankles. For a split second, Neil thought about running for the door. He’d never make it out, but maybe the guard would shoot and it would all be over.
Looking at the kind face, pinkened from stooping, he couldn’t though. They’d talked earlier, and he liked this guard. The man had made sure he got all of the last breakfast he’d requested, right down to the steak and eggs and jalapenos and maple syrup.
He was a good guy, and he didn’t deserve to have a man’s death on his soul. He may have had to before, may already have one or two weighing on him. He didn’t need more, even if it was justified and forgivable.
That weight was heavy, Neil knew. Heavier than anything else a soul would ever have to bear, except maybe the knowledge that you took that life while the man’s kid watched.
Lying back on the gurney, Neil stared up at the ceiling, keeping his sight away from the glare of the lamp. He didn’t want to die blind. He wanted to see it coming.
He felt bad for the man that would insert the needle, too, and figured that’s why he wouldn’t look at him. If he didn’t see it, it wasn’t real. He wondered how many times the guy had done this? Did it make it better that it was an injection and not a bullet? That it was ordered by a judge and not an angry moment?
The door burst open and for a quarter of a heart beat Neil though Jack had been successful and the appeal had been signed. But no – he could tell by the pale skin, the tight lips. Nothing had changed.
He shifted his gaze back to the ceiling.
“I’m sorry.” The man in the lab coat touched his left wrist. “My name is Matt, and this may sting a little going in.”
The man’s eyes were dark and wet.
So, it wasn’t easier when it was an injection.
“No prob, man. No prob.”
The man nodded and rustled through his equipment.
“Sorry, Neil. I couldn’t convince the judge. Not even a stay.” The lawyer’s voice cracked and echoed in the room.
“S’okay. Thanks for trying one last time.”
“Anything you want me to do? You know, after?”
“Yeah, just-” he wanted to tell Marisa he was sorry, really sorry, but that wouldn’t take coming from Jack. His letter hadn’t worked, why would the words coming from someone else’s mouth?
So, what did he want? He’d spoken to his mother yesterday by phone, the connection scratchy over the distance, convincing her not to come out for this. He didn’t want her hurt anymore by something Marisa would say. He’d hurt her enough already.
“Tell my mom I love her.”
“Sure, man. Sure.” Jack shifted back when the guard put a hand on his shoulder.
It was time to get strapped in.
There was a wide strap for his torso, smaller ones for his thighs, and then even smaller ones yet for his wrists and ankles. The cold of metal clasps touched his skin like a flame.
“Do you need a blanket?” It was Matt, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of the lab coat. He looked like he’d do anything to delay the inevitable.
“Nah.” Neil shifted under the straps.
“Too tight?” It was the guard. “I can loosen them just a bit.”
Neil shook his head again. His throat closed up, making speech impossible. Why hadn’t folks been this nice when he was young? Not just to him, but to Ric, too. Maybe then, they wouldn’t have joined that gang, tried to run drugs, and gotten in a bind.
“Okay, then.” Matt placed a warm palm over his forearm and squeezed. Then slid the tubing around his upper arm, knotted and tightened it. The vein bulged in his inner elbow. “Here we go.”
“Say a prayer for me?” Neil forced the words out, though no one might be able to understand their garbled sense. “Please, ask God to forgive me?”
He said his own quick prayer, an abbreviated version of the one he’d said every night before closing his eyes to sleep: Please forgive me and help me. Amen.
The pin prick did sting – a lot. The liquid burned going in. But then his eyes watered and the light above his head swam in a circle.
Neil O’Malley closed his eyes and died. The official time of death: 10:07 a.m., Tuesday, January 5, 2015.
A clock flashed the time: 10:06. The numbers were blue that shifted to green, then purple. Neil stood, staring, waiting for that 6 to flip to 7.
It didn’t. The time stayed at 10:06.
“They say there’s no going back.”
Whirling, Neil stared at the figure behind him. “Ric?”
“Hey, bro. Whassup?” The tall man held out a hand for a low five.
On automatic, Neil slapped the hand, holding up the other for the ritual high five, which Ric gave him with a slow grin.
“What the hell?”
Ric snickered. “Not hell, man, not hell.”
Neil nodded and stared. “I’m sorry.”
“I know.” Ric cocked his head to the side and stared. “Would you change it if you could?”
“Hell – heck, yeah.”
“Do you really mean that?”
And everything went black.
The air was humid, like after a rain, but it wasn’t clean. Neil could smell gasoline and rotting fish. There was a gun in his hand, his gun; he recognized the feel of the Glock against his palm. He’d thrown it in the bay after shooting Ric. How was it back?
“Hey, you here or not?” Ric hissed in his ear and Neil jumped.
What the hell?
Blinking, Neil glanced around. The rusty hulls of cargo containers, the moldy brick walls of the warehouses.
He was back at the night he shot Ric.
“Come on, man. We gotta hurry. Sean’s back in the car. I don’t like leaving him alone like that.”
Neil swallowed hard. “Maybe we should go back. Forget all about this.”
“Naw, man. This is it. We get the stuff, sell it, and we’re good as gold.”
“I got a bad feeling, Ric.”
“Don’t chicken out on me now, Neil. We are in this together, man. I’m tired of your whiny complaining all the time.”
“Man, this is wrong.” Neil grabbed Ric’s arm, spinning him around. “You know it.”
“What I know is you agreed to help me for a cut. So help.” Ric snatched his arm away and crouched to listen, his own gun tucked in the waistband of his loose jeans. “Put some swagger on and let’s do this.”
They were supposed to meet the man with the goods at his boat, a small river tug moored next to a French tanker. They weren’t supposed to have weapons, but Ric had insisted they pack. It was just too dangerous not to.
“Are you sure this is the right pier?” Neil followed, his voice harsh in the dark.
“‘course I’m sure. I got the directions from Marco.” Ric led the way, standing tall, his gait a long lanky swivel of hips.
Neil didn’t trust Marco, but the man was a long-time friend of Ric’s from the neighborhood. Ric vouched for him. So Neil went along.
The gun felt wrong. An uncomfortable appendage that didn’t belong.
“Who’z there?” Someone called from a hidden corner.
“Friends of Marco. Come to make pickup for him.”
“Friends of Marco, huh?”
“Yeah.” Ric put his hand on his gun but didn’t pull it out.
“You bring the money?”
Ric shifted. “What money?” His voice cracked.
“Marco owes me money. Didn’t he tell you? He shafted me on his last purchase.”
“He didn’t tell me that. Just asked me to pick up for him.” Ric pulled his gun out, his hand shaking.
Neil swallowed. “Man, let’s book.” His whisper was louder than intended.
“Aw, you wanna leave the party?” Another voice stepped into the alley between the warehouses, a semi-automatic held at an angle across his chest. His clothing was dark, darker than the shadows, and Neil couldn’t make out anything but a towering menacing figure.
“We made a mistake trusting Marco.” Neil raised his voice. His own gun wavered in his hand.
“Oh, you made a mistake all right.” The man pointed his weapon at him. “I need a payment, and I’ll take it any way I can.” He jerked the weapon. “Face each other.”
“What?” Ric pointed his gun at the man.
The man laughed and aimed the semi at Ric. “Don’t think that will scare me, boy. I got me a fancy vest. Do you have a fancy vest?”
Neil shook and may have pissed in his pants a little. Neither of them was getting out alive. This man was going to shoot them where they stood; they didn’t have a chance in hell of making it home.
“Dad?” The quavering voice from behind them made all three men freeze.
“Git back in the car, Sean.” Ric’s voice shattered.
“But, Dad? What’s going on?”
“Git back in the car!”
There was a skitter of feet, but only for a few yards. Sean did not make it all the way back to the car.
“Got him, boss.” Another voice, another dark shadow.
Shit. Neil’s stomach plummeted. What the hell now?
“Let the kid go, man.” Ric lowered his gun. “Please, just let him go.”
“Oh, I need a favor for that. One good turn deserves another, yeah?” The man with the semi took a step forward, a slant of lamplight slicing across his weapon.
“Yeah, sure.” Ric’s nod was violent.
“Shoot your friend.” The man jerked the barrel at Neil.
“I said shoot him, straight through his heart. Do that, and I’ll let the kid go, unharmed.”
“Naw, man. You must be kidding.” The crack in Ric’s voice just made the man laugh.
“One of you will shoot the other. If you don’t, the kid will die.” The man laughed, loud and sharp. “And it won’t be quick.”
Ric turned to Neil, raising his gun to shoulder height. “I’m sorry, man, I’m sorry.”
“S’okay, Ric. Do it. Go ahead.”
Ric closed his eyes and fired. One second after, Neil shifted, and the bullet whizzed past, its wind kissing his cheek in passing. It careened by, slamming into the wall, spraying brick dust and tiny shards of hardened clay.
“Only one bullet at a time. Makes it hard when you’re nervous.” The man with the semi took another step forward. “Okay, friend. Now it’s your turn.”
From behind, Sean squealed, the sound high and terrified.
“Better hurry, Mick likes little boys.”
Trembling, Neil raised the Glock, aiming the barrel at Ric.
Ric nodded and lowered his own gun.
Ric fell, a deep red stain spreading across his chest.
Someone yelled and cursed from behind, and sneakers slammed against the wet ground. For a second, Neil saw Sean, his nine-year-old eyes wide, blood trickling from a cut on his lip. Then, in an instant, the child turned and sprinted away, screaming.
“Aw, hell. Looks like the fun’s all over.” The man with the semi shuffled back, keeping his gun up and trained on Neil. “Say hi to the feds for me. Oh, and let Marco know he still owes me the cash.”
And the men were gone, fading into the shadows like they never were. Sirens rent the air, piercing Neil’s ear drums. He winced, sniffing. He swiped an arm over his nose and tip toed toward his friend.
There was no response.
“Ric? You okay, man?”
Still no sound, no movement. He’d aimed for his shoulder, but he’d never been that great a shot.
“Aw, fuck, man.” Neil dropped to his knees next to his friend’s body, finger tracing the growing stain, pressing his palm over the wound. “No, no, no.”
He stared at the Glock in his shaking hand. Standing, he squinted in the distance and hurled it away. A few seconds later, the faint splash of it hitting the water reached him between siren wails.
When the police arrived, their own weapons, drawn, Neil stood over Ric’s body, tears coursing down his cheeks, blood dripping from his hands.
“I thought you were gonna to do it different this time?”
“I tried.” Neil’s whisper was more air than sound. He watched the police cuff him and drag him off. Watched Sean, tears mixing with blood, point at him and bury his face in a blanket. Watched the EMTs load Ric’s body into the back of a silent ambulance.
“Yeah. You almost got in front of my bullet. I saw that.”
“Can I try again? I’ll be faster this time. I swear.”
“Naw, man. You only get one second chance.”
“‘course, we’ve seen what we needed to see.”
Neil pulled his head up, but it was hard. It was leaden, and it was like he was moving it though something solid.
Ric jerked his head and other figures appeared beside him. “You know, ‘we’.”
“No, I don’t.”
“They’ve heard your prayers, Neil. And now, they’re answering them.”
“Answering?” Neil blinked. What was Ric talking about? How could these figures answer his prayer? “I do need an answer, though.”
“Oh?” Ric smiled. “To what question?”
“Do you forgive me?”
“Man, I forgave you when you did it. I shot first, remember? I forgave you the instant Sean walked away. Don’t ever doubt that, Neil.” Ric stepped forward and clamped a hand on his shoulder, gently shaking his friend. “Do you forgive me?”
“What?” Neil squinted up. There was a palpable light all around his friend’s face, glowing, making it hard to focus. But Ric was still the same as in his memory, tall and solid, his skin and hair dark. He latched on, like he was an anchor, grabbing that arm, his fingers gripping tight.
“Do you forgive me for getting you into that mess?”
“Of course. I know you were desperate for money. You trusted Marco.”
“I should have listened to you.”
Neil shrugged. “It’s all done now.”
“Yeah. All done.”
The blinking clock numbers changed: 10:07.
“Come on, the Big Man wants to see you. He might even show you around.”
“Show me around? Around where?”
“Well, we ain’t in hell man. You made sure we ain’t in hell.”