Tyler Stevens was a man condemned to die. He had been convicted by a jury of his peers and sentenced by a judge who prayed for God’s mercy on his soul. As is the case with all death row inmates in Texas, Tyler became a resident at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville, where he spent most of his days starting fights, ignoring orders, and proclaiming his innocence to anyone who would listen.
At night Tyler would sleep. In fact, there were very few things in prison Tyler enjoyed more as it was often the only respite from the terminally mundane. Each night when the lights would flicker off, Tyler would lie in bed, pull up the covers, and fall fast asleep. Until tonight. Tonight sleep was his enemy, and he was going to fight his foe with all his strength.
Tyler had been on death row for just over 227 months. He found it funny how the inmates counted in months, like a mother telling someone who asked that her child was twenty months instead of almost two. On this day, however, Tyler no longer told time in months. His last appeal exhausted and his request for clemency denied, he knew the moment the lights went out that he had 540 minutes to live. He wasn’t going to waste a single one sleeping.
When the lights were on, Tyler would find himself in a cell which was little more than a medium-sized bathroom with a bed. The walls and the floors and the atmosphere were all ice cold. It was why, up until that night, Tyler craved the dark. That night, however, the first thing Tyler noticed was how different the dark seemed. Throughout his incarceration, darkness had been a blanket that swaddled him. It gave him comfort and undeserved peace. Tonight, though, he felt the void of the dark, and the silence that used to sing him to sleep was loud.
The second thing Tyler discovered was that there was no time in the dark. Each moment felt like the one before, indistinguishable from the one to follow. He had never encountered this phenomenon as he was usually sound asleep within minutes. But on this night, he lay awake as if time stood still.
The little light that did find its way through the small window on his cell door wasn’t enough to provide any comfort, but it did play tricks on his mind, filling it with thoughts of the past. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he noticed a shadow he was certain had never been there before. It had almost a human form and seemed to be standing by the back wall, watching him.
At first, he thought the shadow might be his mother, but he quickly dismissed that idea. His mother was a cold, unfeeling woman. She sat idly by when Tyler’s father, drunk or high, beat her son mercilessly. She hadn’t come to a single one of his hearings or visiting days. He knew she didn’t have the time or desire to haunt him. In truth, he had no idea who his mind had conjured up as a companion for his last night on this earth. He only knew that the shadow did nothing but watch in silence until Tyler turned towards the wall. Then the shadow spoke in a thick Boston accent.
“Well Tylah, this is a fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into.”
The voice was both terrifying and familiar. It took superhuman courage to turn back in its direction. To Tyler’s dismay, the shadow, faceless, still encroached his space.
He knew the voice instantly. Mrs. Murphy had been a staunch Irish Catholic English teacher from Tyler's first high school. In Tyler’s whole life, she had been the one person who believed him.
“This isn’t like skipping my class or cheating on a test,” the shadow continued. “What did you do to get yourself locked up here?”
Tyler knew in his heart of hearts the shadow wasn’t real, and Mrs. Murphy wasn’t talking to him. Though in the dark and facing the end, he was glad for the companionship.
“I did something awful, Mrs. Murphy. It turns out everyone was right—I was a bad seed right from the start.”
“You stop that right now, Tylah Stevens. You are not a bad person.”
“But Mrs. Murphy, you don't understand.”
“I understand more than you know, Tylah. You were always one of my favorite students.”
“How can you say that? I skipped more days than I was present and…”
“And when you were there, no one wrote with more depth and insight. You, my friend, were wicked smaht.”
“No, Mrs. Murphy, I was just wicked.”
“Wicked? Hahdly, Do you remember the necklace?”
“I don’t,” Tyler answered, lying to himself and the shadow.
“Yes, you do. When I had cancer, you came to see me in the hospital and brought me a necklace.”
“Yes, a cross, Tylah. You were the only student who visited with me. You sat with me and read to me and comforted me when I was in pain. You gave me that necklace.”
“My grandmother’s necklace.”
“That’s right. Those weren’t the actions of a wicked boy.”
“But you don’t know what I did!”
“Okay, tell me, what exactly did you do?”
“I killed a man, Mrs. Murphy. I shot him and I left him to die.”
For a moment the shadow sat silent, long enough for Tyler to contemplate what he had just said. It had been more than 18 years since he had been arrested. 18 years of trials and appeals, and this was the first time he ever admitted to himself what he had done.
“Are you sorry for what you did, Tylah?” the shadow asked, breaking the silence.
The question hung in the air somewhere between light and dark. Tyler had never allowed himself to consider if he was sorry, but he was. For the first time since his arrest, he felt true remorse for what he had done.
“I am Mrs. Murphy,” Tyler said, breaking into tears, “From the bottom of my heart—I am so sorry.”
“Why?” The shadow asked. “Why are you sorry?”
“Because he didn’t deserve to die. He was just a clerk at the gas station. I knew him. We would talk when I stopped in for cigarettes, and I killed him for fifty-eight dollars. He didn’t deserve that.”
“So you’re not just sorry you got caught?”
“No, Mrs. Murphy, not at all. I deserve to die.”
“Maybe so, but you’re not dead yet. What are you going to do now?”
“What do you mean? What can I do now?”
“You can choose how you die.”
“But I don’t understand—why does it matter how I die?”
“When dying is all that is left, it matters a great deal. You can die with dignity. Accept your fate. Say you’re sorry. It will make all the difference”
Before Tyler could respond, the light coming through his window flickered. The shadow disappeared.
At dawn, breakfast was brought to Tyler who had not slept. His last meal was nothing fancy, just bacon and eggs, a favorite from his grandmother’s house when he was a boy. Tyler ate in silence with a peace that seemed unattainable only a few hours earlier.
With breakfast finished, there was just one thing left to do. Tyler accepted his restraints willingly, walking without complaint to the room where he would receive a lethal injection. When he was secured to the table and had his IV needle inserted, the curtains allowing people to view the execution opened up.
There were only three people in the room. Tyler recognized two right away—the mother and father of the young man he had killed. Tyler’s eyes welled up with tears, but he made sure his words were clear and heartfelt.
“I am so sorry for what I’ve done to your son—your family. I hope you find peace.”
When he finished, he looked at the third person in the room. She was much older than he remembered, but the cross that hung on the chain around her neck gave away her identity. He had no words for Mrs. Murphy, just a head nod to thank her for being there.
With nothing left to do but die, he smiled as the first drug entered his veins. Then, he was finally free to fall asleep.