Flash fiction prompt 25 and this is probably one of the most grim things I’ve ever written or researched. Yep, I spent all day Googling information about exactly what happens in an electric chair. My search history this month is amazing.
Content warning for detailed description of execution, brief mentions of child murder (no details) and mentions of animal torture (a few details).
And in the end, it all came back to energy. Kilojoules, calories, newtons, lumens, decibels, volts . . . mostly volts. I started to see units of measurement everywhere, numbers to define how something could be experienced, seen, heard, felt, pressed, fuelled, burned, used, destroyed. It started when I read that 2,450 volts of electricity would be passed through my brother’s body and energy began to mean something different to me.
These 2,450 volts would bring intense heat, muscle spasms and death. They would burn and cook his brain and his skin, make his eyes bulge and melt, and his bowels release. They would cause him to jolt so violently against the leather straps that his bones would break. They would stop his heart. They would comfort the families of his victims, watching from behind glass in a room that was at once too close and too far away. They might bring nightmares fuelled by cognitive dissonance to the men who unlocked the door, led him down the corridor, tightened the straps, pulled the lever. I had no idea what they would do to me.
I left a long time ago and I never expected to be back. There was nothing here for me and in just a few hours there will be nothing here for me again. I only returned because he asked me to. He wanted someone there who had no connection to the boys he had kidnapped, tortured and killed, the four carefully chosen, helpless, innocent reasons for his arrest, sentencing, imprisonment and execution. Any real connection I had to him was severed long ago when I bought a one-way ticket and never looked back, but he had no-one else. I wanted to say no. I wanted to carry on with my life as though my brother hadn’t killed children in a country I no longer resided. I wanted to maintain my distance with my new name from a brief marriage and oceans between us. But for some reason, I said yes and I went.
We communicated by letter at first. He told me he had come to understand it was unfortunate that he had caused suffering but that he couldn’t help it. He knew each of the boys he had killed was someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s friend, someone, but his need to do what he did outweighed all that. He said he had always felt the need, that it started when he was younger than the boys whose lives he had ended, and he always knew it was only a matter of time before he progressed from doing what he did to animals to doing what he did to people.
He asked if I had been scared of him when we were children, if I had seen it coming, if I had known what he was. It took me a week to reply to that letter because I didn’t know what to say other than yes. The truth is, I had always known and when I heard he had been arrested I spent a year in therapy I couldn’t afford telling a well-meaning stranger that I should have said something, should have done something, to stop this. The other truth is, I know that there is nothing I could have done. I couldn’t have changed something so entrenched in the core of his being. I couldn’t have turned him into someone else.
Where we lived, hunting and butchering animals was perfectly acceptable, often admired. It was a running joke that he was a terrible shot, but he wasn’t that terrible. He never missed entirely. He only missed enough that it was always necessary to finish the job with a knife. The loudest alarm bell was not rung by the killing of the animals he hunted to eat but by the killing of the animals he hunted simply because he could. Sometimes he started to cut them up before they were dead, although I think I was the only one who knew that. I found him elbow-deep in the still-twitching body of a stray dog in the back field one day after school and all he said was, “Don’t tell anyone”. So I didn’t. And a year later, I left.
I had seen pictures of him on television and in newspapers, but during my first visit to the prison I was surprised that he was no longer the fifteen year old boy he had been when I last saw him in person. His eyes were the same though—dark, cold, empty apart from the occasional flare of something like anchorless resentment—and I felt a stab of ice in my heart when he looked at me. He said he didn’t think I would come but he was glad I did, that he understood why I hadn’t stayed before, why I hadn’t come home when both our parents were killed in the house fire that he had escaped from unscathed at the age of eighteen. Of course there had been no definite proof of arson but I knew and he knew that I knew.
When the day came, he was given the opportunity to speak his final words before they brought down the hood to cover his face. He said only, “I want to thank my sister for being here today and for leaving before. Her presence was the only thing that held me back and when she left I was finally free to do what I needed to do”. Then he smiled with a gentle, honest acceptance.
The thundering beat of my heart as I walked towards my rental car. The slam of the door shutting. The spark of the ignition as I turned the key. The roar of the engine as I drove away. The falsely warm glow from the streetlights overhead. The gathering speed as I headed towards the airport. The heat of the tears streaming down my cheeks. And in the end, it all came back to energy.
About the photo
The person in the picture is my husband. I needed a photo of a male-looking person with a hood covering most of his face and a particular type of smile. Also, there’s a bit of poetic justice in this. I didn’t see the Green Mile for years after it came out because Tom Hanks annoys the shit out of me and I rarely watch anything he’s in. I eventually gave in and said I’d watch the film “As long as you don’t actually see anyone actually getting electrocuted to death”. My husband, who had forgotten the MOST HORRIFIC PART OF THE FILM, told me that no, you didn’t. So yeah. It’s fitting that a photo of him is accompanying this story.